By: E&P Staff
Five op-eds in Sunday’s Washington Post may set off an intriguing debate, pro and con. On the front page of the Post’s Outlook section, famed Columbia University historian Eric Foner proposes George W. Bush as the worst president in our history — and author Douglas Brinkley disagrees, but very slightly: He thinks Bush only ranks as poorly as Herbert Hoover.
Another historian, David Greenberg, believes that only Nixon was worst. Meanwhile, Michael Lind pegs Bush at #5 –from the bottom. But Vincent J. Cannato, a historian at the University of Massachusetts, cautions: “Today’s pronouncements that Bush is the ‘worst president ever’ are too often ideology masquerading as history.”
The Washington Post editorial page, ironically, has been a strong backer of the Iraq war from the beginning.
Foner opens by noting that such rankings have long been a favorite among historians, with changes in rankings (Truman up, Teddy Roosevelt down, etc.) setting off near-seismic rumblings. He describes some of the consensus losers, for example: “At a time of national crisis, Pierce and Buchanan, who served in the eight years preceding the Civil War, and Johnson, who followed it, were simply not up to the job. Stubborn, narrow-minded, unwilling to listen to criticism or to consider alternatives to disastrous mistakes, they surrounded themselves with sycophants and shaped their policies to appeal to retrogressive political forces….
“Even after being repudiated in the midterm elections of 1854, 1858 and 1866, respectively, they ignored major currents of public opinion and clung to flawed policies. Bush’s presidency certainly brings theirs to mind.”
Then there’s Nixon, “mostly associated today with disdain for the Constitution and abuse of presidential power. Obsessed with secrecy and media leaks, he viewed every critic as a threat to national security and illegally spied on U.S. citizens. Nixon considered himself above the law.
“Bush has taken this disdain for law even further. He has sought to strip people accused of crimes of rights that date as far back as the Magna Carta in Anglo-American jurisprudence.”
One other president bears comparison to Bush: James K. Polk, Foner writes: “Some historians admire him, in part because he made their job easier by keeping a detailed diary during his administration, which spanned the years of the Mexican-American War. But Polk should be remembered primarily for launching that unprovoked attack on Mexico and seizing one-third of its territory for the United States.”
Foner closes: “Historians are loath to predict the future. It is impossible to say with certainty how Bush will be ranked in, say, 2050. But somehow, in his first six years in office he has managed to combine the lapses of leadership, misguided policies and abuse of power of his failed predecessors. I think there is no alternative but to rank him as the worst president in U.S. history.”
Brinkley declares that Bush’s legacy “hinges on Iraq, which is an unmitigated disaster. Instead of being forgiven, like Polk and McKinley, for his phony pretext for war (WMD and al-Qaeda operatives in Baghdad), he stands to be lambasted by future scholars….
“There isn’t much that Bush can do now to salvage his reputation. His presidential library will someday be built around two accomplishments: that after 9/11, the U.S. homeland wasn’t again attacked by terrorists (knock on wood) and that he won two presidential elections, allowing him to appoint conservatives to key judicial posts. I also believe that he is an honest man and that his administration has been largely void of widespread corruption. This will help him from being portrayed as a true villain.
“This last point is crucial. Though Bush may be viewed as a laughingstock, he won’t have the zero-integrity factors that have kept Nixon and Harding at the bottom in the presidential sweepstakes. Oddly, the president whom Bush most reminds me of is Herbert Hoover, whose name is synonymous with failure to respond to the Great Depression. When the stock market collapsed, Hoover, for ideological reasons, did too little. When 9/11 happened, Bush did too much, attacking the wrong country at the wrong time for the wrong reasons. He has joined Hoover as a case study on how not to be president.”
What about Lind? The third judge weighs in: “It’s unfair to claim that George W. Bush is the worst president of all time. He’s merely the fifth worst. In the White House Hall of Shame, Bush comes behind four other Oval Officers whose policies were even more disastrous: James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Richard M. Nixon and James Madison.
“What makes a president horribly, immortally bad? Poor luck is not enough. Some of the greatest presidents, such as Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt, have inherited crises and risen to the occasion. The damage must be largely self-inflicted. And there’s another test: The damage to the nation must be substantial. Minor blunders and petty crimes do not land a president in the rogues’ gallery.”
Finally, Cannato defends Bush, citing a merely “mixed” record: “Any appraisal of Bush’s record must consider that he took over in difficult times. By most objective measures, the economy is doing well: Inflation, interest rates and unemployment are low, economic growth is steady, and the stock market is climbing. Complaints about income inequality are legitimate, but the issue has long-term structural roots, and neither party has done much to address it.
“What is disheartening is the tendency of many historians to rate presidents based on their support for liberal social policies. Just as frustrating is the inability to acknowledge the deep debates over law enforcement measures, such as the USA Patriot Act, enacted after 9/11. Rather than acknowledge the tough tradeoffs between security and privacy, we are left with the hyperbole that this administration is ‘trampling on civil liberties.’
“Sometimes wisely and sometimes rashly, Bush has steered the nation through the post-9/11 world. It has been an uneven trip so far, but the country has not suffered another attack in more than five years.”
But David Greenberg, the Rutgers historian, agrees, “Bush has two years left in his presidency and we don’t know what they’ll hold.” But he adds: “They may be as dismal as the first six. Future investigations may bear out many people’s worst fears about this administration’s violations of civil liberties. And it’s conceivable that the consequences of the invasion of Iraq may prove more destructive than those of Nixon’s stubborn continuation of the Vietnam War.
“Should those things happen, Bush will be able to lay a claim to the mantle of U.S. history’s worst president. For now, though, I’m sticking with Dick.
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