Byko: Worst president ever? Go back a few decades, author says

On the porch of his Haddonfield home, amateur historian Robert Strauss reads a copy of former President James Polk’s correspondence.

IN THE PROLOGUE to an election that some fear could produce the worst president ever (hint: it's the multimillionaire with the multiple marriages), author Robert Strauss has released a book titled "Worst. President. Ever."

The book's full title reveals it is James Buchanan, the only Pennsylvanian to be sent to the White House.

In Strauss' view, Buchanan was a carnival of failure. Basically he was a plodder and a ditherer, and when he did act, he usually chose the wrong path, says Strauss, 65, a Cherry Hill native for whom the book was a lifetime in the making.

It started when he was about 6, in a hospital having his tonsils removed.

Strauss' father, Sam, a lawyer with a love of history who collected presidential papers and histories, bought him a paperback book - "Facts About the Presidents" - to read in the hospital.

"It was like Moneyball," says Strauss, referencing the Oakland Athletics' analytical, statistics-based management style. At that point, Strauss was "a little, nerdy Jewish kid, an only child who always loved sports" who would feast on the box-score stats in the newspapers Sam brought home after work. Presidential history was planted beside his passion for sports.

After graduating from Minnesota's tiny Carleton College with a BA in philosophy, what else could he do but grab a job as a sportswriter for the Mankato, Minn., Free Press?

Throughout the first third of his professional career, Strauss was in more newspapers than Marmaduke. I met him at the Daily News in the late '70s before he left in 1981 to accept a job at Sports Illustrated in New York - for $100 less than he was making at the People Paper.

That sounds crazy, but it was a national publication, he could work several days a week from his Haddonfield home, and train fare was a lot less then, he says.

His full-time, for-salary journalism career ended in 1995 when he took a buyout from the Asbury Park Press, where he had been the TV critic for eight years. He decided he'd become a full-time freelance writer.

"Are you crazy?" gently inquired his wife, Susan Warner, then an Inquirer reporter. They had a mortgage on the three-story Haddonfield house, and two daughters, Ella and Sylvia.

As it turned out, not so crazy, because Strauss had many contacts with editors, having worked at nine newspapers. He's also likeable, a genius at networking, and developed a reputation as a reporter who could complete assignments on time, to professional standards.

His byline has appeared in local publications, plus the Washington Post, the L.A. Times, Newsday, Fortune, and more than 1,000 bylines in the New York Times. Also mixed in that bag are college alumni magazines and even Today's Machining World, which sent him on assignments around the country to write about interesting manufacturers. There's nothing better than expense-account travel.

Strauss is a lifelong globe-trotter, and even without an expense account racked up visits to more than 100 countries, many with his wife and daughters.

The athletic-oriented daughters provided the inspiration for his first book, "Daddy's Little Goalie," which he describes as a "funny, sentimental memoir about the dad of girl jocks."

The book got him an agent, and the agent pushed him to come up with an idea for another book.

He had presidential material already stuffed in his head, no one needed another book on Washington, Jefferson, or Lincoln, so why not go in a completely different direction?

"I'm a contrarian," he told me as we sat in his home on a quiet street. "It's fun to write about the guy who isn't the 'best' guy," says Strauss, wearing a Carleton College sweatshirt.

He can talk about Buchanan for hours, but I ask him for a Top Three list of blunders.

"He comes to office to solve the slavery issue," but is a Dough Face, a Northerner with southern sympathies, says Strauss. Seven states secede while he's in office, he says that is illegal, but takes no action to stop them.

Number 2, as a result of upheaval following the wrong-headed U.S. Supreme Court Dred Scott decision - which ruled that slaves did not become free if they reached a free state - the economy faltered, and then descended into panic. Buchanan washes his hands of the crisis.

The third was the fight to admit Kansas as a free or slave state, leading to night-riding chaos between abolitionists and slavers, during which Buchanan does nothing.

And yet, says Strauss, "He was not corrupt, he was the big party-thrower of his time, he never spoke poorly of others, he would never be caught in an an email controversy," says Strauss, making a sly comment on both of today's leading presidential contenders.

Either of which could be the subject of his next book.


stubyko@phillynews.com

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