Copyright ©2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

President Bush has just broken a record, but not the kind of record a president hopes for. Sixty-nine percent of Americans say they don't like the job he's doing. That's the highest disapproval rating ever recorded by the Gallup Poll. Now, the poll's been around for 70 years and that got us wondering who were the most unpopular presidents in America before polling?

I put that question to Allan Lichtman. He's a history professor at American University.

Professor ALLAN LICHTMAN (History, American University): Let's start with Herbert Hoover. Herbert Hoover presided for nearly four years over the Great Depression.

SEABROOK: Oh.

Prof. LICHTMAN: He tried real hard to combat the Depression but none of his remedies worked. Herbert Hoover became co closely associated with the hardships of the Great Depression that they called the shantytowns that grew up around cities Hoovervilles. And he didn't help himself with all of his optimistic predictions that the Depression was about to end while people were suffering.

One guy collected Hoover's optimistic projections in a collection called Oh Yeah?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: What about William Howard Taft? I remember his administration well.

Prof. LICHTMAN: Yeah, not too many people remember much about William Howard Taft except that he was over 300 pounds.

SEABROOK: Yeah.

Prof. LICHTMAN: William Howard Taft was Theodore Roosevelt's handpicked successor when Roosevelt chose not to run again in 1908. Taft was just a bad political manager. He didn't know politics. He couldn't even remember the names of the seven or so reporters who covered his presidency.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. LICHTMAN: And he managed to badly antagonize the progressive wing of the party led by Theodore Roosevelt. And in actuality Roosevelt challenged him for the 1912 nomination, and Theodore Roosevelt, the president, William Howard Taft, and Senator Robert La Follette fought the first major primary election battle in the history of the presidency. Primary elections had just been introduced around the turn of the 20th century and it is a measure of the unpopularity of William Howard Taft that he won precisely one out of 12 primaries as a sitting president.

SEABROOK: How can you and other historians really judge, though, the approval of President Bush and how it stands up to, say, a Hoover or a Taft? Can you really compare?

Prof. LICHTMAN: Of course comparison is very difficult. But I do think unpopular presidents have something in common that's very, very important. That for the most part, they are presiding over the end of an era. Herbert Hoover presided over the end of the era of Republican Party domination in the United States. And his defeat marked the rise of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal and the New Deal Coalition that would dominate American politics for decades.

SEABROOK: Taft?

Prof. LICHTMAN: Taft presided over the end of the progressive Republican Party. James Buchanan presided over the dissolution of the Union. Another unpopular president: John Adams...

SEABROOK: The first...

Prof. LICHTMAN: ...the first unpopular president.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. LICHTMAN: Presided over the end of the era of the Federalist Party, George Washington's party. He was the last Federalist president elected, primarily because the Federalists weren't really responsive to the new popular politics of the 19th century.

John Adams had such a reputation as an elitist that Jeffersonians spread the rumor that Adams was planning to marry one of his sons to the daughter of the king of England and start an American monarchy.

SEABROOK: So, President Bush.

Prof. LICHTMAN: President Bush is presiding over the end of the conservative era that began with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and was pushed forward with the Republican takeover of the Congress in 1994.

SEABROOK: The views of Allan Lichtman. He's a professor of history at American University, and he's author of the book "White Protestant Nation: The Rise of the American Conservative Movement." That's out in June. Thanks for joining us.

Prof. LICHTMAN: My pleasure.

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: