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Presidents On Presidents

June 2024
7min read

They’ve all had things to say about their fellow Executives. Once in a great while one was even flattering.

John Adams said Thomas Jefferson’s mind was “eaten to a honeycomb with ambition, yet weak, confused, uninformed, and ignorant.” Ulysses S. Grant said James Garfield did not have “the backbone of an angleworm.” Theodore Roosevelt called Woodrow Wilson “a Byzantine logothete.” Wilson called Chester Arthur “a nonentity with sidewhiskers.” Harry Truman summed up Lyndon Johnson with a curt “No guts!”

It is hardly surprising that Presidents would have strong opinions about their predecessors and successors. Not all of them have expressed their views in public. Some have concealed critical thoughts as a matter of policy: they felt Presidents and former Presidents should avoid public brawls. Others have been awesomely, even recklessly confrontational. But few Presidents have gone quietly into the night without some interesting remarks on the record.

George Washington was an exemplar of presidential reticence. When his successor, John Adams, decided to send an envoy to France to try to resolve the quasi-war raging between the two countries, Washington was appalled. Leading Federalists urged him to speak out against the move, but despite his admission that he found Adams’s decision “incomprehensible,” Washington told Secretary of War James McHenry, “I believe it is better that I should remain mute.” (Had Washington intervened, he would have found himself in the embarrassing position of opposing what turned out to be one of the most brilliant coups in the history of American diplomacy. The envoy astonished everyone by bringing home peace with France.)


This example of reticence was soon honored in the breach. John Adams vented his spleen on Thomas Jefferson for years, combining palpable jealousy with acute criticism. In 1803, seeing disaster in Jefferson’s decision to dismantle the Navy he had created to fight the French, Adams wrote William Cunningham, the son of an old friend, “I shudder at the calamities which I fear his conduct is preparing for his country: from a mean thirst of popularity, an inordinate ambition and a want of sincerity.” Jefferson, for his part, complained that his predecessor was “distrustful, obstinate, excessively vain, and takes no counsel from anyone.”

Nine years later Adams wrote to Jefferson directly to blame him for the impending War of 1812. Jefferson’s lack of a navy had encouraged both the English and the French to treat America with contempt. Jefferson, proving himself a philosopher, ignored these shafts and replied with an essay on the theology of the American Indian.

This long-running postpresidential feud had a touching denouement. In 1823, when both men were very old, the letters Adams had written Cunningham in “sacred confidence” were published in the newspapers by Cunningham’s son. The son, a passionate supporter of Andrew Jackson, was trying to derail John Quincy Adams’s candidacy for President by showing that John Adams had slandered Thomas Jefferson. A horrified John Adams rushed a frantic apology to Jefferson, vowing that the quoted excerpts, were “destitute of [the] truth.”

Jefferson replied that he had paid no attention to the letters. “It would be strange indeed,” he wrote, “if, at our years, we were to go an age back to hunt up imaginary or forgotten facts to disturb the repose of affections so sweetening to the evening of our lives.”

President James K. Polk fixed a steely eye on his new Secretary of State, the future Chief Executive James Buchanan. “Mr. Buchanan is an able man, but in small matters without judgment and sometimes acts like an old maid,” the President wrote. Andrew Jackson agreed and let Polk know it in an anxious letter. When Polk pointed out that Jackson himself had earlier appointed Buchanan minister to Russia, Jackson replied, “It was as far as I could get him out of my sight. I would have sent him to the North Pole if we had kept a minister there!”

Like Buchanan, Millard Fillmore and his successor, Franklin Pierce, are remembered today chiefly for their timidity in handling the slavery issue. But when Civil War finally resulted, neither man was timid about expressing his opinion of Abraham Lincoln. Pierce was particularly vehement; the climax of his opposition came on July 4, 1863. At a five-hour rally in Concord, New Hampshire, he assailed Lincoln, denounced the war as an attack on the Constitution, and ended by virtually urging his fellow Democrats to launch a Northern insurrection.

While Pierce was speaking, the news filtered through the crowd that a great victory had been won at Gettysburg. The speech became a political humiliation from which the former President never recovered.

The Republicans of Buffalo grew to detest Fillmore for his attacks on the President. The story goes that when Lincoln was assassinated, the city fathers ordered every building in the city to display mourning symbols. Fillmore, distracted by his wife’s illness, didn’t hear about the order. He awoke the next morning to find his house smeared with black paint.

Theodore Roosevelt and his successor, William Howard Taft, started out as friends. In 1901 TR said Taft would make a “glorious candidate and president,” and when, in 1908, Taft got the nomination with Roosevelt’s backing, Teddy told him he would be the “greatest president, bar only Washington and Lincoln.”

But Taft’s concept of the Presidency turned out to be utterly opposed to Roosevelt’s. By January 1912 TR decided that Taft must go and he himself ran against him as the candidate of the impromptu Progressive party. In the course of the campaign TR called Taft a “puzzlewit” and a “fathead.” Taft called his erstwhile best friend an “egotist” and a “demagogue.” Roosevelt, convinced he had found his moment in history, seemed unvexed by these exchanges, but one reporter told of finding Taft, after a speech damning Roosevelt, slumped with his head in his hands, weeping.

TR succeeded only in electing the Democrat Woodrow Wilson. Here too there was a curious early fondness on the part of both men, but Wilson slowly soured on TR. In 1907 he remarked, “I am told he no sooner thinks than he talks, which is a miracle not wholly in accord with an educational theory of forming an opinion.” By 1912 he was calling TR a “very, very erratic comet.”

For his part Roosevelt admired some of Wilson’s early political speeches but found him personally unattractive and compared him with Charles Sumner, “a cold-blooded creature with a good deal of intellect but lacking the fighting virtues.” This distaste rapidly grew into vitriol when war broke out in Europe and Wilson tried to remain neutral. When the President reacted to the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 by declaring that Americans were “too proud to fight,” Roosevelt called the sinking “piracy pure and simple” and warned that America would earn “scorn and contempt if we follow the lead of those who exalt peace above righteousness.”

When war finally came, Roosevelt asked for permission to raise a volunteer division and lead it to Europe. Wilson stonily refused him, creating a permanent antagonist on the home front. “I am the only one he has kept out of the war,” Teddy roared.

Another Republican President revered Wilson. Herbert Hoover worked for Wilson as U.S. food administrator and afterward wrote The Ordeal of Woodrow Wilson, a largely admiring tribute to Wilson’s “great clarity of thought” and “superior mind.” His only flaw, in Hoover’s view, was a tendency to mistake “honest and proper argument against his conclusions for personal criticism.”

On the other hand, Hoover did not love his fellow Republican Theodore Roosevelt. In the late twenties, when Hoover was becoming a candidate for President, his backers came across a story of how he had rescued a trapped Chinese child from a crossfire during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. They proposed to release the tale to the papers. Hoover refused. “You can’t make a Teddy Roosevelt out of me,” he said.

Wilson’s opinion of Warren Harding was terse and totally negative. He was “a fool of a president.” Calvin Coolidge resented the praise heaped on Herbert Hoover in the press even before he became President and called him “the wonduh boy.” Franklin D. Roosevelt belabored Hoover mercilessly on his own way to the Presidency in 1932, conveniently forgetting that he had offered to run as his Vice President if Hoover should decide to become a Democrat for the 1920 presidential election. “I wish we could make him president,” FDR wrote a friend. “There could not be a better one.”

From his youth FDR modeled himself on his cousin Theodore. But Woodrow Wilson also became a dominant figure in his political thinking, and he saw himself as a blend of both men—a Wilsonian idealist with TR’s pragmatic streak. He liked to quote Wilson’s remark: “It is only once in a generation that a people can be lifted above material things. That is why conservative government is in the saddle two-thirds of the time.”

Eisenhower was unimpressed with Kennedy, but his opinion of Johnson was even lower: “superficial and opportunistic.”

Theodore Roosevelt was much on FDR’s mind. One night, working late on a speech, he bared his teeth and thrust out his chin while reading one paragraph. “Now this I must say in the true TR manner,” he said.

“Oh, but Mr. President,” answered the speech writer, Tommy Corcoran, “the difference between you and TR is that you never fake.”

FDR gave him his chameleon’s smile. “Oh, but Tommy, at times I do, I do!”

When Dwight Eisenhower left office, in 1961, he was unimpressed with the man elected to succeed him, and he stayed that way for the next two years. He thought Kennedy’s show-business friends sullied the dignity of the White House, and he was appalled by JFK’s deficit spending. In 1963 he wrote a magazine article violently attacking the idea. Deficit finance, he warned, “through history has lured nations to … economic disaster.” Ike liked to repeat the old saw “You can always tell a Harvard man, but you can’t tell him much.”

Ike’s opinion of Lyndon Johnson was, if possible, lower. He considered him “superficial and opportunistic,” without “the depth of mind [or] the breadth of vision to handle great responsibility.” He totally disapproved of Johnson’s handling of the Vietnam War, condemning his “acting by ‘driblets’” and his constant interference with his military commanders.

For a man who was written off by both Truman and Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson demonstrated a keen sensitivity to other Presidents’ shadows. In 1965 he signed the historic Voting Rights Act in the room where Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation; he journeyed to Independence to sign the Medicare Act in Harry Truman’s presence, as a tribute to Truman’s fight for national health insurance; and in the last year of his Presidency, with protests against the Vietnam War reaching a crescendo, he was haunted by Woodrow Wilson. He had a recurring dream of lying in a bed in the Red Room of the White House while his aides argued in the next room over dividing up his power. Awake, he connected the dream immediately to the paralyzed Wilson of 1919. He would get up and walk through the darkened halls to Wilson’s portrait. Gradually Johnson became convinced that if he ran for another term, he would collapse with a stroke—vascular illness ran in his family—and end his Presidency in paralysis and defeat like Wilson. The premonition had a strong influence on his decision to withdraw from the 1968 campaign.

Like most Presidents defeated after a single term, Jimmy Carter left the White House bitter and depressed. But he displayed a Washington-like reluctance to criticize his successor, to the exasperation of many Democrats. Recently, when veterans of the Carter administration gathered for a reunion, they asked Carter what he thought of former President Reagan’s acceptance of a multimillion-dollar fee to make a public appearance in Japan. Carter said he had been asked the same question by reporters and had hesitated to criticize a former President. But among his friends he could be more candid. “If any of you hear of another deal like that,” he said, “let me know.”

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