All-Star Evil

John Hawkins at Right-Wing News * ran an interesting pair of polls. He asked a group of right-wing bloggers and a group of left-wing bloggers to name the worst twenty figures in American history (not in order) and then counted the votes.

Below is the “left” list, followed by the “right” list.

My own list, as submitted (again, this isn’t in any particular order):

J. Edgar Hoover, Joseph McCarthy, Roger Brooke Taney, Jefferson Davis, Nathan Bedford Forrest, Richard Nixon, John Wilkes Booth, A. Mitchell Palmer, Woodrow Wilson, William Randolph Hearst, George W. Bush, Theodore Bilbo, Preston Brooks, Huey Newton, Richard Mellon Scaife, Ronald Reagan, Timothy McVeigh, James Earl Ray, Strom Thurmond.

On reflection, I think I should have included Andrew Jackson (for the Trail of Tears) and John C. Calhoun, and perhaps Wallace rather than Thurmond. Polk and Buchanan perhaps also belonged on the list, Polk for the Mexican War and Buchanan for failing to take the obvious military steps necessary to prevent secession.

As Matthew Yglesias notes, all the lists are hopelessly telescoped in time; Jesse Jackson and Hillary Clinton, Rush Limbaugh and Dick Cheney, for example, look important only in a (temporally) very myopic view.

Perhaps because the lists were gathered in a political context from political people, the political is allowed to outweigh the merely criminal; Jim Jones doesn’t make anyone’s list, for example, nor does Al Capone (an omission I regret).

Unsurprisingly, the left is tougher on rebels and related racists, while the right is tougher on the ideological friends of the USSR (Ames, who sold out for money, is about equally despised by left and right). I would surely have listed Kim Philby had he been an American; I left off Julius Rosenberg and Alger Hiss because I don’t see that either of them did much in the way of actual damage. Matthew Yglesias wonders what Nathan Bedford Forrest is doing outranking Jefferson Davis; my answer would be that the introduction of systematic and successful terrorism into American politics was a worse action than mere rebellion, even rebellion in a thoroughly bad cause.

It’s worth noting that the left seems to have forgiven Hoover and Coolidge, while the right still hates FDR. That Noam Chomsky outranks John Wilkes Booth or James Earl Ray in the Right’s demonology says, I would submit, something strange about the Right. On the other hand, what’s a footnote-to-a-footnote like George Lincoln Rockwell doing on the Left list? It’s not as if he’d been a traitor during WWII. He’s not as silly a choice as Michael Moore (!), but he can’t possibly belong on the list of the 200 most evil Americans, let alone 20.

Violence in council seems to have been higher on my list of sins than was common on either side of the aisle. I’m a little surprised that Brother Huey, who brought armed men the floor of the California Assembly, didn’t hit either consensus list. I’m less surprised not to have much company in naming Preston Brooks for his armed assault on Charles Sumner on the floor of the Senate.

A fundamental change in the meaning of “left” and “right” shows up in the absence of both corporate and union figures from the lists (aside from Hearst, who is really there as a political figure rather than as an entrepreneur). A generation ago, such lists would probably have included some of the great figures from the union/management wars.

Political corruption shows up only in the person of Boss Tweed; I thought about including Mark Hanna, but decided to pass because I don’t really know the rights and wrongs of his career.

As I wrote to Hawkins when I submitted my list, part of the reason for the telescoping is mere ignorance. I’m sure that there should be a major slave trader on my list, but I don’t know the name of one. I knew also that someone involved in slaughtering Indians belonged there, but (having forgotten Andrew Jackson’s little exercise in genocide) I couldn’t come up with a name for that category either.

As a Rorschach test, this was an interesting exercise. In the end, though, I’m not sure the question posed made it possible to frame an answer using anything like coherent criteria.

The Left list (working from the bottom up):

Boss Tweed (5), Roger Taney (5), James Earl Ray (5), Charles Manson (5), Rush Limbaugh (5), Jerry Falwell (5), Roy Cohn (5), Dick Cheney (5), John C. Calhoun (5)

20) The Rosenbergs (3) + Julius Rosenberg (3) (6 total votes)

20) Pat Robertson (6)

20) Oliver North (6)

20) William Randolph Hearst (6)

20) Aaron Burr (6)

20) Aldrich Ames (6)

18) George Lincoln Rockwell (7)

18) Robert McNamara (7)

14) Richard Mellon Scaife (8)

14) Lee Harvey Oswald (8)

14) Charles Coughlin (8)

14) Strom Thurmond (8)

13) Ronald Reagan (9)

12) George Wallace (10)

11) Andrew Jackson (12)

9) Jefferson Davis (13)

9) George W. Bush (13)

6) Benedict Arnold (14)

6) Henry Kissinger (14)

6) John Wilkes Booth (14)

3) Timothy McVeigh (16)

3) Nathan Bedford Forrest (16)

3) J. Edgar Hoover (16)

2) Richard Nixon (25)

1) Joseph McCarthy (26)

The Right list:

Ted Bundy (5), Jane Fonda (5), John Wayne Gacy (5), John Walker Lindh (5), Joe McCarthy (5), Michael Moore (5), Boss Tweed (5)

17) Franklin Delano Roosevelt (6)

17) John Walker (6)

17) Lee Harvey Oswald (6)

17) Robert Byrd (6)

16) Aldrich Ames (7)

14) Richard Nixon (8)

14) Aaron Burr (8)

12) Al Sharpton (9)

12) Charles Manson (9)

8) Timothy McVeigh (10)

8) Lyndon Johnson (10)

8) Hillary Clinton (10)

8) John Wilkes Booth (10)

7) Alger Hiss (12)

6) Noam Chomsky (13)

4) Jesse Jackson (14)

4) Jimmy Carter (14)

3) Bill Clinton (15)

2) Benedict Arnold (19)

1) The Rosenbergs (15) & Julius Rosenberg (5) (20 total votes)

Update Thanks to the reader who pointed out the misspelling of “secession,” which has been corrected. Another reader suggests Sirhan Sirhan, who failed to qualify by reason of nationality. A third makes an interesting pair of nominations: Harry Anslinger, for inventing the war on drugs, and Timothy Leary, for confusing people about the relationship between the clear light of the void and a party.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: