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Touchstone Books (Paperback);
ISBN: 0684852063
Could anything be duller than another book about long-forgotten presidents? If you answered no, then you haven't read former Baltimore Sun reporter Nathan Miller's Star Spangled Men: America's Ten Worst Presidents

Miller, a five-time Pulitzer nominee and author of ten other historical titles, simply refuses to bore. His 10 presidential portraits are loaded with lively detail: 

  • 320 pound William Howard Taft stuck in the White House bathtub,
  • Calvin Coolidge's annoyance over his failure to get change when he sent someone on an errand to buy a ten cent magazine,
  • Pint-sized Benjamin Harrison with a handshake like a cold fish,
  • Warren Harding's father-in-law opposing his daughter's marriage because Harding was presumed to have African-American blood,
  • Ulysses S. Grant shaking his fist every time he passed the home of radical Congressman Charles Sumner.  

Beyond that, the book does a great job of dealing with the women behind the men, exploring the often fatal role of wifely ambition in bringing unqualified men to highest office.  

In addition to engaging detail, Miller invests the book with a historian's perspective on larger issues. He minces no words in pinpointing the failings of his nominees for odium: 

  • Taft, an able judge totally unsuited for the rough and tumble of politics;
  • Harding, a political hack driven by a good old boy's twin nemeses -- the bottle and brassieres;
  • Benjamin Harrison, a nitpicker totally devoid of leadership qualities;
  • Grant, a failure at everything except war, dragged down by grasping friends and relatives;
  • Franklin Pierce, a man lacking vision who caved in to Southern sentiment and backed the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, thus opening the door to the renewal of sectional conflict and fanning the embers of Civil War. 

Discussing Jimmy Carter, Miller moves closest to the present. The book reveals surprising details about Carter's personal qualities, notably his deification of Admiral Hyman Rickover and Carter's personal supervision of the White House tennis schedules. Miller concedes Carter was among the brightest of all presidents (60th in his class at Annapolis without cracking a book) and something of a saint as an ex-President. However, in Miller's view Carter left office a failure, having failed to communicate a vision to a confused nation and unable to control Congress.  

While acknowledging Carter's successes, Miller points out strange contradictions in Carter's reign. These include Carter's pro-segregationist campaign to defeat the ex-governor of Georgia and his creation of bureaucratic elephants -- Department of Energy and the Department of Education -- after having been elected on a promise to trim government. Miller closes Carter's segment with a frustrated Carter trying to cope with the Iranian hostage crisis. 

Over all, Miller's nominations for the worst 10 presidents offer no particular surprises -- until one reaches the epilogue where he nominates his two most over-rated presidents. Too bad the book was published in 1998. One wonders if our current commander-in-chief would have made Miller's bottom 10 had the book been written a year later. Bottom line? Not for everyone, but a must-read for American history buffs. 

H. Turnip Smith

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