Some conservative blogger has churned up a list of the 25 Worst Americans. The winner is (I shouldda seen this coming) Underbelly's favorite Republican President, Jimmy Carter. Most of the on-list commentary is predictably awful, although I do like "20 American historical figures that tick me off" from one HaHa. You can also find some good stuff by searching for "Woodrow L. Goode," (unknown to me, but he seems to be a professional freelance commentator). Steve Bainbridge adds a refreshing dose of sanity to the discussion (but--Paris Hilton?--Steve, you've got to be kidding).
The list inevitably provokes a lot of unanswerable questions about criteria--e.g., how to rank a lurid but essentially private wickedness (Charles Manson?) against a more soporific public disaster (Franklin Pierce?). What, exactly do we do with "traitors" like Jefferson Davis, who committed their greatest mischief after they left the Union (or in the act of leaving it?). And if Nathan Bedford Forrest makes the list, why bypass Robert E. Lee?
One lack I note in early commentary (though with, I suppose, plenty more to come)--I don't notice any mention of the great mischief-makers of organized crime like "Lucky" Luciano and Meyer Lansky (who surely also belong on any list of great business leaders).
Cudgeling my brain for my own list of 25, and perhaps constrained by some of the limitations that I set forth above--I'm not sure I could put together a list of 25. That is: I can surely put together a list of 25 who tick me off (cf. HaHa supra.). Or I could break it down into 25 instances of private-criminal wickedness, 25 cases of head-banging annoyance, etc. I could certainly list 25 whom I thought were political calamities--Nixon for sure, Rutherford B. Hayes (i.e., for selling out the black South); Andrew Jackson (arrogance, ignorance and bellicosity--a trifecta). On second thought, maybe I would include Hayes and Jackson--but even Nixon, after sober reflection, strikes me as not worst "for sure" but rather as an unsettlingly mixed bag.
That kind of leaves me with--hm. Well, I suppose I could add Roger B. Taney and John Wilkes Booth. Maybe Aaron Burr for killing perhaps the smartest and most visionary of the founders, i.e., Alexander Hamilton. But I'm at--what, five? I guess I'm disposed to ignore (for present purposes) sheer wickedness with no public consequence--so, goodbye Manson, also Jim Jones. Beyond that I can't get very far without descending into partisanship and pique.
Maybe that's just a failure of imagination on my part, but I wonder if this may not be some testimony to the astonishing energy and resiliency of our body politic. We've had wickedness, corruption, incompetence, general awfulness of every sort. But to qualify truly as "the worst?" I'd say the list is actually rather short.