The Big Question

Who is the most underrated politician in history?

Graham Roumieu

David Kennedy, professor emeritus, Stanford University

After Zachary Taylor’s death, Millard Fillmore inherited the presidency, and a congressional deadlock over secession. He proved instrumental in passing the delicately balanced Compromise of 1850, a legislative package that was often maligned but that bought precious time for free states to build the material, human, and moral resources for Union victory in the next decade.

Jonathan Alter, author, The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies

The lawyer Joseph Welch and the broadcaster Edward R. Murrow are remembered as heroes for denouncing Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1954. But four years earlier, Margaret Chase Smith, a Republican senator from Maine and the first woman to serve in both houses of Congress, gave her “Declaration of Conscience” speech, in which she became the first to publicly criticize “the reckless abandon in which unproved charges have been hurled from this side of the aisle.”

Chris Matthews, host, MSNBC’s Hardball

Richard Nixon was on the Republican national ticket in every election, with one exception, from 1952 through 1972. In 1960, he lost to the handsome, charismatic John F. Kennedy by one of the narrowest votes on record. Defeated for California governor two years later, he came back to win the presidency in 1968. His connection with the American vote, displayed in his 1952 “Checkers” speech, was and is severely underestimated.

Elizabeth Drew, author, Washington Journal: Reporting Watergate and Richard Nixon’s Downfall

Senator Sam Ervin, a ham, might have gotten the attention during Watergate for his hearings, but Peter Rodino, a New Jersey congressman thrust into the chairmanship of the House Judiciary Committee, hired just the right people and pulled off the only respected impeachment proceedings in our nation’s history.

Joseph Ellis, professor, Mount Holyoke

Thomas Jefferson was known for his lyrical prose and lofty ideas, but a closer look at his career in the 1790s reveals a level of political deftness and duplicity that makes Machiavelli appear naive.

Candy Crowley, chief political correspondent, CNN

In terms of loving the game, Pat Buchanan was as good as any I’ve ever seen. People tend not to see him as a serious politician. But like Hubert Humphrey, Buchanan was a “happy warrior”: he seemed to genuinely care for the voters he met on the campaign trail.

Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, managing editors, Bloomberg Politics

Jerry Brown has been written off as “Governor Moonbeam,” a washed-up flake, and a human exercise in nostalgia. But he’s taken heterodox, ahead-of-their-time positions; waged surprising and spirited campaigns (he was Bill Clinton’s stiffest challenger in the 1992 presidential race); and bent politics and policy to his will, leveraging the intricacies of inside baseball and the propulsive force of public opinion. And he has embodied the most essential political quality of all: resilience.

H. W. Brands, professor, University of Texas at Austin

For decades, Southerners wrote the dominant histories of Reconstruction, and they didn’t like Ulysses S. Grant, the only president between Lincoln and Lyndon Johnson to put the muscle of the federal government behind rights for African Americans. Southern sabotage and Northern apathy defeated his efforts, but he set down a moral marker that the nation finally had to redeem.

Kenneth W. Mack, professor, Harvard Law School

An antislavery zealot and murderer who failed at everything he did in life, John Brown was executed for the ill-planned 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry. Everyone underestimated him, including the Virginia political leaders who made the mistake of putting him on trial, the platform he used to help bring on the Civil War.

Jean Edward Smith, political historian

While Dwight Eisenhower was accused of having a 36-hole workweek, he made peace in Korea, avoided war in Vietnam, and thawed the Cold War. He also punctured the bubble of McCarthyism, enforced desegregation in the South, and constructed the interstate highway system and the Saint Lawrence Seaway, opening the Great Lakes to ocean traffic.

Bill Maher, host, Real Time with Bill Maher

Mikhail Gorbachev. The world had a few close calls with Armageddon during the Cold War, and Gorbachev was able to end it with a whimper and not a bang. He's not popular in his own country, but the whole world owes him a huge debt of gratitude.

Richard Norton Smith, author and historian

Calvin Coolidge’s anti-charisma, no less than his flinty integrity, proved a welcome alternative to Wilsonian uplift and Harding’s Ohio cronyism. He abolished the last vestiges of the wartime Red Scare, slashed taxes, called for Americans to work more for themselves and less for their government, and restored confidence in Washington. Hardly a man for all seasons—but, most emphatically, one for his time.

Gary Shteyngart, author, Little Failure

I really miss Yingluck Shinawatra, the recently deposed prime minister of Thailand. The Thai military deposes prime ministers every couple of years and I never lose any sleep, but Shinawatra was not just smart and in favor of rice subsidies (even though hers were kind of a disaster), but also as gorgeous as any politician has ever been. Good luck wherever you are, Yingluck!