The 7 Most Notorious Presidential Meltdowns

Presidents have been indulging in tantrums, snits, and meltdowns ever since George Washington swore an oath on the Bible in 1789—some, admittedly, more often than others, and some using much more colorful language. Here are six instances when the United States president acted as truculently as a grade-schooler sent to bed without dessert.

Andrew Jackson, 1835

Engraved portrait of Andrew Jackson
Andrew Jackson. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When Andrew Jackson was elected president in 1828, he was considered by many voters to be rough, uncouth, and unfit for office. Still, it wasn't until 1835 (toward the end of his second term) that someone took it in mind to do something about it, and unintentionally proved the point in the process. As Jackson was leaving for a funeral, an unemployed house painter named Richard Lawrence tried to shoot him, but his gun misfired—at which point the 67-year-old Jackson began shouting loud obscenities and clubbing Lawrence repeatedly on the head with his walking cane. Incredibly, a bruised, beaten, and bleeding Lawrence had the composure to withdraw a second pistol from his vest, which also misfired; he wound up spending the rest of his life in a mental institution.

Andrew Johnson, 1865

President Andrew Johnson
Johnson (1808-1875) was Abraham Lincoln's vice-president and succeeded Lincoln as president after his assassination. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Andrew Johnson was technically only vice-president when Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated to his second term, but since he succeeded to the presidency only a month later, his meltdown makes this list. Already sick with typhoid fever, Johnson prepared for his inaugural speech by downing three glasses of whisky, and you can guess the result: slurring his words, the new vice-president belligerently called out his fellow cabinet members by name, demanding that they acknowledge the power granted to them by the people. At one point, he clearly forgot who the Secretary of the Navy was. He then closed his remarks by virtually frenching the Bible, declaring, "I kiss this book in the face of my nation, the United States!" Lincoln could usually be counted on to deliver a disarming quip in such circumstances, but all he could say afterward was, "It has been a severe lesson for Andy, but I do not think he will do it again."

Warren G. Harding, 1923

Warren Harding and Woodrow Wilson traveling together on inauguration day.
Warren Gamaliel Harding (1865 - 1923), the 29th President of the United States of America, riding in a carriage with the former President Woodrow Wilson (1856 - 1924) during the Inauguration ceremony. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

The Warren G. Harding administration was beset by numerous scandals, usually caused by Harding's unmerited trust in his political cronies. In 1921, Harding appointed his pal Charles R. Forbes as director of the new Veteran's Bureau, where Forbes embarked on a dazzling spree of graft and corruption, embezzling millions of dollars, selling medical supplies for personal gain, and ignoring tens of thousands of applications for aid from U.S. servicemen injured in the First World War. After resigning from office in disgrace, Forbes visited Harding in the White House, at which point the otherwise colorless (but six-foot-tall) president grabbed him by the throat and attempted to choke him to death. Forbes managed to escape with his life, thanks to the intervention of the next visitor on the president's calendar, but wound up spending the next couple of years in Leavenworth prison. 

Harry S. Truman, 1950

President Harry Truman holding up a newspaper with headline proclaiming, ‘Dewey Defeats Truman.’
President Harry S. Truman and Famous Newspaper Error. Underwood Archives / Getty Images

Harry S. Truman had a lot to deal with during his presidency—the Korean War, worsening relations with Russia, and the insubordination of Douglas MacArthur, to name just three. But he reserved one of his worst tantrums for Douglas Hume, the music critic for the Washington Post, who panned his daughter Margaret Truman's performance at Constitution Hall, writing "Miss Truman has a pleasant voice of little size and fair quality... she cannot sing very well, and is flat most of the time."

Thundered Truman in a letter to Hume, "I've just read your lousy review of Margaret's concert... It seems to me that you are a frustrated old man who wishes he could have been successful. When you write such poppy-cock as was in the back section of the paper you work for it shows conclusively that you're off the beam and at least four of your ulcers are at work."

Lyndon Johnson, 1963-1968

Lyndon Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act. Dominio público

President Lyndon Johnson bullied, yelled at, and physically intimidated his staff on an almost daily-basis, all while spouting homespun Texas profanities. Johnson was also fond of belittling aides (and family members, and fellow politicians) by insisting that they follow him into the bathroom during conversations. And how did Johnson deal with other countries? Well, here's a sample remark, allegedly delivered to the Greek ambassador in 1964: "F** your parliament and your constitution. America is an elephant. Cyprus is a flea. Greece is a flea. If these two fleas continue itching the elephant, they just might get whacked good."

Richard Nixon, 1974

President Richard Nixon sits at his desk as he announces his resignation.
U.S. President Richard M. Nixon sits at a desk, holding papers, as he announces his resignation on television, Washington, D.C. (August 8, 1974). (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

As was the case with his predecessor, Lyndon Johnson, the last years of Richard Nixon's presidency consisted of an unending succession of tantrums and meltdowns, as the increasingly paranoid Nixon railed against supposed conspiracies against him. For sheer dramatic value, though, nothing beats the night when the besieged Nixon ordered his equally besieged Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, to kneel down with him in the Oval Office. "Henry, you are not a very orthodox Jew, and I am not an orthodox Quaker, but we need to pray," Nixon is quoted as saying by his Washington Post nemeses Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Presumably Nixon was praying not only for deliverance from his enemies, but forgiveness for incriminating remarks about Watergate that had been caught on tape:

"I don't give a shit what happens. I want you all to stonewall—plead the Fifth Amendment, cover-up, or anything else. If that will save it, save the plan."

Donald Trump, 2020

Donald Trump mid-speech

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Following the results of the 2020 presidential election, in which incumbent Donald Trump lost to Democrat challenger Joe Biden, Trump launched an unprecedented attack on the election and the electoral system itself. He, his surrogates, and his supporters insisted without evidence that the election had been rigged, submitting an increasingly ludicrous series of claims that ranged from conspiracy theories about mail-in voting during the pandemic and about voting machines, to outright claims in court that certain votes in key counties and states should be thrown out entirely and that the election should be sent either to the Supreme Court or to Congress. He, along with the majority of Republicans in Congress, refused to acknowledge the results of the election, and he continued to insist that he was the victim of a conspiracy, frequently ranting on Twitter even as lawsuit after lawsuit was thrown out.

"I WON THIS ELECTION, BY A LOT!" he tweeted on the same day that Biden's win was announced. Later statements continued in the same vein, insisting on massive voter fraud and conspiracies. "He only won in the eyes of the FAKE NEWS MEDIA. I concede NOTHING! We have a long way to go. This was a RIGGED ELECTION!"

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Strauss, Bob. "The 7 Most Notorious Presidential Meltdowns." ThoughtCo, Dec. 17, 2020, Strauss, Bob. (2020, December 17). The 7 Most Notorious Presidential Meltdowns. Retrieved from Strauss, Bob. "The 7 Most Notorious Presidential Meltdowns." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).