COMMENTARY | On Presidents Day, we'll be treated to sales, perhaps a day off of work and another list of the best and worst presidents in American history. Of course, as dead and living presidents out of office don't change their record much, it becomes perhaps a tired and tedious exercise.
But what about looking at those who should have been president? Some of these would have replaced presidents considered the worst, according to U.S. News and World Report analysis. Others had qualities that would have helped them handle crises and conflicts better than those chosen by the American people. I also did not include several presidential candidates who lost to bad presidents, who showed little ability to be an improvement over the winner.
As with my list of underrated presidents, this group is relatively bipartisan, including two Democrats, two Republicans and one Whig.
* No. 5 -- John C. Fremont: An explorer, gold miner, general and adventurer, Fremont was an exciting character. Always pushing hard for an end to slavery, he lost primarily because his party was only 2 years old in 1856. And the man who defeated him, James Buchanan, almost always tops the list for worst American president due to his decision to allow the South to secede. Fremont, who battled Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley, would have never allowed that to happen.
* No. 4 -- James M. Cox: Cox, who was a newspaper editor and owner, served in Congress from Ohio. He also had executive branch experience as Ohio governor. That's something his victorious opponent, the inept Warren G. Harding, badly needed but did not have. Cox pushed for workers' compensation and a minimum wage, which was very forward-thinking for a candidate. He also knew something about picking a vice president, who was Franklin D. Roosevelt. Had Cox been elected, we might have avoided the corruption and Great Depression of the 1920s.
* No. 3 -- Winfield Scott Hancock: Hancock was one of the best generals of the Civil War. His ability to hold the center at Cemetery Ridge against Pickett's Charge outside Gettysburg, Pa., might have saved the Union. He even received a war wound, and a dismissal from the military for being conciliatory toward the South after the Civil War. Hancock was beaten by a general lacking his military record (James Garfield). Some speculate that had Garfield not been assassinated, he might have been impeached and removed from office. Luckily, Arthur was able to use the assassination to end patronage practices, something Hancock might have done without the benefit of an assassin's bullet.
* No. 2 -- John McCain: No, this isn't a slight against Barack Obama, whose administration must still be judged. Instead, it's a statement that McCain should have won the 2000 primary against George W. Bush. The events of 9/11, the Iraq issue, the budget, Abu Ghraib, Hurricane Katrina, hunting Osama bin Laden and the finance sector meltdown needed someone with military experience, personal courage that had been tested and an ability to work across party lines. Bush was too partisan and out of his league. America would be in better shape today had McCain been president in the early 2000s.
* No. 1 -- Winfield Scott: Scott was not only one of the best presidents we never had, but one of the best generals we ever had. His record in the War of 1812 produced some of the few successes along the Canadian border. His Mexican War campaign generated spectacular victories against much larger opponents on their home turf. He worked well with his subordinate generals, and even managed the belligerent ones. His age betrayed him, as he was defeated in 1852 by Franklin Pierce, whose forgettable administration and Kansas-Nebraska Act helped bring the country toward the Civil War. But even then, Scott set in motion the strategic plan that eventually won the war, even if others didn't realize it at the time in 1861.
* Honorable mention: Al Smith, Hubert Humphrey, Thomas Dewey, Charles Evans Hughes and Alexander Hamilton.