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Worst. President. Ever'

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Book explores the less-than-stellar legacy of James Buchanan

At a time when Americans are struggling with their choices for the next President of the United States, it only makes sense to take a look back into history and remember those past leaders who haven't necessarily wrapped themselves in glory.

Robert Strauss takes us all the way to the back of the POTUS line with 'Worst. President. Ever.: James Buchanan, the POTUS Rating Game, and the Legacy of the Least of the Lesser Presidents' (Lyons Press, $26.95). It's a clever, conversational look at the life and times of James Buchanan, generally considered to be the worst chief executive this country has ever had.

I'll be honest my history knowledge isn't what it should be. I've got enough to pull the occasional bar trivia-friendly factoid out of the ether, but not much more than that.

And so I went into this book not knowing much about James Buchanan other than his aforementioned consensus selection as the last of the least. If you gave me a minute, I could probably have worked out when his term was (March 4, 1857 March 4, 1861) because I likely would have remembered that he was succeeded by Abraham Lincoln. I knew he was the only lifelong bachelor among the presidents and subject to considerable speculation with regards to his sexuality.

That's really about it. I knew nothing about his affiliations or about his life; nothing about his work as a public servant either before or during his presidency. For the most part, he was just a name and a handful of factoids nothing more.

And it's not like there are a lot of people clamoring for more info. Strauss himself discovers that as he visits Buchanan's neglected former estate or learns from a librarian just how infrequently Buchanan's papers are requested. He's a footnote, one that has been almost entirely submerged by the ever-rising tides of history.

But when you dig a little deeper, it soon becomes clear why this guy sits at or near the bottom of pretty much any presidential ranking metric. His style of leadership was to more or less sit on his hands while things happened around him, leading to massive misfires like the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Dred Scott Supreme Court Decision. Oh, and there was that whole thing where he basically invited secession, an invitation on which South Carolina took him up right before he left office with plenty more to follow.

And yet on paper, he was perhaps one of the most qualified men ever to assume the office. He served in both the House and the Senate representing his native Pennsylvania. He had terms as minister to both Russia and the United Kingdom. And he served as Secretary of State in both Polk's and Taylor's cabinets. His primary path to continued upward movement? Don't rock the boat even when all decency and common sense demands it be rocked.

Biographers generally tend to be drawn to the great men in whatever their field of interest; presidential history is no different. The Washingtons and Jeffersons and Lincolns are the ones for whom the most ink is spilled; they are the titans of our country's history. Buchanan is no titan which might be why this book is so compelling.

Strauss combines a devotion to detail with a subtle sense of humor to relay Buchanan's story in a way that entertains even as it informs. He bounces around a bit, leaping from Buchanan's history to that of other presidents and even recounting some of his own experiences as a lover of history and an explorer of the weird world of forgotten presidents. There's none of the pressure that comes with writing about greatness, none of the staid seriousness that informs the biographies of the more popular presidents. Buchanan's lowly status in the hierarchy allows for a completely different brand of presidential narrative; there's no need to fawn over or apologize for Buchanan.

Basically, Strauss has some fun with it much to our benefit.

'Worst. President. Ever.' is smart and well-wrought, finding an eminently readable sweet spot between hagiography and hit piece. Buchanan had plenty of flaws flaws that Strauss never shies away from pointing out but he was also one of just a handful of men to serve in our country's highest office; there's a degree of respect inherent to that office of which Strauss never loses sight. Fans of biography and American history particularly presidential history - will be delighted by this book, a great piece of work about a not-so-great man.


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