Eric Foner On George W. Bush: “He’s The Worst Ever”

The other day I mentioned how much I dislike those Top 100 most influential Americans lists.  The same holds true for those lists that poll historians on the worst presidents, but in the case of our present leader it’s hard to disagree with historian Eric Foner.  This op-ed is set to appear in tomorrow’s Washington Post:

Ever since 1948, when Harvard professor Arthur Schlesinger Sr. asked 55
historians to rank U.S. presidents on a scale from "great" to "failure," such
polls have been a favorite pastime for those of us who study the American
past.

Changes in presidential rankings reflect shifts in how we view history. When
the first poll was taken, the Reconstruction era that followed the Civil War was
regarded as a time of corruption and misgovernment caused by granting black men
the right to vote. As a result, President Andrew Johnson, a fervent white
supremacist who opposed efforts to extend basic rights to former slaves, was
rated "near great." Today, by contrast, scholars consider Reconstruction a
flawed but noble attempt to build an interracial democracy from the ashes of
slavery — and Johnson a flat failure.

More often, however, the rankings display a remarkable year-to-year
uniformity. Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Franklin D. Roosevelt always
figure in the "great" category. Most presidents are ranked "average" or, to put
it less charitably, mediocre. Johnson, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Warren
G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Richard M. Nixon occupy the bottom rung, and now
President Bush is a leading contender to join them. A look at history, as well
as Bush’s policies, explains why.

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
(in that era, pro-slavery and racist ideologues). 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.

Harding and Coolidge are best remembered for the corruption of their years in
office (1921-23 and 1923-29, respectively) and for channeling money and favors
to big business. They slashed income and corporate taxes and supported
employers’ campaigns to eliminate unions. Members of their administrations
received kickbacks and bribes from lobbyists and businessmen. "Never before,
here or anywhere else," declared the Wall Street Journal, "has a government been
so completely fused with business." The Journal could hardly have anticipated
the even worse cronyism, corruption and pro-business bias of the Bush
administration.

Despite some notable accomplishments in domestic and foreign policy, Nixon is
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: trial by impartial jury, access to lawyers and
knowledge of evidence against them. In dozens of statements when signing
legislation, he has asserted the right to ignore the parts of laws with which he
disagrees. His administration has adopted policies regarding the treatment of
prisoners of war that have disgraced the nation and alienated virtually the
entire world. Usually, during wartime, the Supreme Court has refrained from
passing judgment on presidential actions related to national defense. The
court’s unprecedented rebukes of Bush’s policies on detainees indicate how far
the administration has strayed from the rule of law.

One other president bears comparison to Bush: James K. Polk. 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.

Lincoln, then a member of Congress from Illinois, condemned Polk for
misleading Congress and the public about the cause of the war — an alleged
Mexican incursion into the United States. Accepting the president’s right to
attack another country "whenever he shall deem it necessary," Lincoln observed,
would make it impossible to "fix any limit" to his power to make war. Today, one
wishes that the country had heeded Lincoln’s warning.

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.

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10 comments… add one

  • chris Dec 2, 2006

    OK, Kevin, my apologies, but would you (and I assume you would based on this post) compare us being attacked on 9/11 and Bush’s war on terror (in Iraq) response (which most Democrats approved) to Lincoln condemning Polk in Mexican? (Which is one of Foner’s comparisons). The only way one could do this, is if one thinks the war is somehow only about oil, or something economic. That would be the only comparison: expansion and money. Foner is totally off base. Unless, of course, one is liberal minded and loves the thought. I like a reasonable and logical opinion. I suggest reading A Lincoln Blog post (http://www.alincolnblog.blogspot.com/).

    Foner can’t help himself and is trying to fit a square peg into his round hole, AT THIS POINT. History will indeed tell us about Bush. We can’t know now, that would defy everything about the study of history… as I understand it. We do not have all the evidence, unless you just hate Bush and conservatism. To have a historian do this is terrible in my opinion. I am not defending Bush, he has blundered in his “stay the course” policy, but he has faced some difficult circumstances. There is much to be resolved. Much to know. We cannot possibly know it all now!!!

    Easy for Foner to sit back and say Bush is “the worst ever,” that is hyperbole and it is only the result of a counter- political and ideological spasm.

    Chris

  • Kevin Levin Dec 3, 2006

    Chris, — I wouldn’t take this too seriously and by the tone of the op-ed Foner doesn’t either. When it comes to these types of analogies I tend to stay away, but there is something right about comparing the consequences of political criticism of a popular war and Lincoln learned that the hard way. My students picked up on this right away.

    There should be no surprise as to where Foner stands on the Bush presidency. I tend to agree with him that this president has been an absolute disaster and we don’t need to wait 50 years for historians to tell us this. I would say that Bush’s “difficult circumstances” are his own doing and go far in revealing his overall effectiveness. Finally, I have plenty of conservative friends who would disagree with your very last comment.

  • Marc Ferguson Dec 3, 2006

    I Don’t think that Foner is equating the Mexican War with 9/11, but with the U.S. invasion of Iraq carried out under the pretense of responding to the terrorist attack on 9/11.

  • Kevin Levin Dec 3, 2006

    You are absolutely right Marc, but if the goal is only to say something about the “liberal minded” than it is unlikely that there will be a close reading of the text.

  • chris Dec 3, 2006

    I hope not, as I respect Foner as a historian and re-reading his piece perhaps he wasn’t as serious as I thought.
    C

  • Will Keene Dec 4, 2006

    Why dont you think Foner is being serious? Seems to me he is being deadly serious and he is right on the money.

  • Will Keene Dec 4, 2006

    Foer was not the only one who has opinined on this subject in the Washignton Post. See:

    He’s Only Fifth Worst, By Michael Lind
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/12/01/AR2006120101475.html?nav=hcmodule

    and

    Move Over, Hoover, By Douglas Brinkley
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/12/01/AR2006120101511.html?nav=hcmodule

  • Kevin Levin Dec 4, 2006

    Thanks for the additional links.

    Will, — All I meant to say is that I don’t think Foner is too serious about the historical aspect of his judgments of Bush. A few comments in the op-ed suggest this. However, I do agree that he is “deadly serious” regarding his views of Bush. I would rather see Foner stay away from the historical argument as it feeds that ridiculous line of thought pushed by Bush and his buddies that history can only judge his present actions. Well, that’s alot of silliness.

  • Jack Dempsey Dec 5, 2006

    The Foner column makes curious comparisons long on rhetoric and short on substance. Bush is stubborn like Pierce/Buchanan/Johnson? Bush is a 2-term president; the people apparently rewarded obstinancy. His administration is pro-big business and slashed the taxes of the rich, like Harding/Coolidge? At last check, Congress levied the tax cuts, and economists say GDP growth benefits the little guy. Bush has sought to strip people accused of crimes of their rights, like Nixon? Hamdan v Rumsfeld was about what kind of trial these people would face, not whether they’d have one; Congress then passed the Military Commissions Act after Bush lobbying. Finally, Bush misled Congress into an unprovoked attack (on Iraq), like Polk? Polk’s war with Mexico extended slavery; the Iraq war produced a constitutional democracy still fighting for its life. I give Professor Foner an “F” for this paper.

  • Rod Haynes Mar 12, 2007

    President lacks the courage and foresight of a great leader, the kind we saw in Lincoln, Teddie and Franklin Roosevelt, and Harry Truman. He surrounded himself with neoconservatives who only fed him what he wanted to hear, unlike Lincoln who was wise enough to build a cabinet chock full of all sorts of characters with a variety of views and ambitions not necessarily in line with his own.

    Bush’s failure is that he is and was never prepared to lead at the national level. He may have been a marginal governor, I really don’t know, but he has terrible speaking skills, has incurred the hatred of just about every nation on earth, and has painted this country into a box we will spend trillions of dollars and lots of political capital extracating ourselfves from.

    I am a progressive and have never cared for Bush and his crowd. But the worst part of my opinion is that I never, never respected the man. He reminds me of many of my prep school friends who cruised through life, shallow and disinterested in people and in the world. For god’s sake, Harry Truman was a high school graduate but he spent his nights reading history books to educate himself. Bush is in bed by 8:00 pm.

    Sorry, no sale. Bush is a pathetic, clueless President. And no amount of perfume can make a skunk smell good.

    Rod Haynes
    Seattle, WA

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