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
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
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.