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

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.


Jonathan Yardley’s Picks For Best Books Of 2006

Jonathan Yardley has one of the coolest jobs around.  He gets paid to read good books and right about them.  Here are his picks for best books of 2006 and I am pleased to see both Jonathan Skokol’s study of the Civil Rights Movement and Joan Cashin’s biography of Varina Davis, both of which I’ve read and highly recommend.  From Yardley’s review:

Three of the works of nonfiction that make my personal list of the year’s
best books, and one of the works of fiction, initially came to my attention
because of a lifelong interest in race relations in the United States generally
and in Southern history more specifically. These are matters about which I make
no claims to virtue or moral purity, but they have been foremost in my mind ever
since, as a boy of 9, I moved with my family from the Northeast to Southside
Virginia. The sight of black convicts working in chain gangs by the roadside
unnerved me, and so did the experience of being waited upon by black women who
were older than my mother.

That was in the summer of 1948, a time when the South was poised at the
threshold of momentous and, for many, traumatic change. The system of
segregation and oppression seemed as immutable as the obligatory statue of a
Confederate soldier in front of the courthouse. Blacks lived in what whites
called "their place," and whites assumed they were both happy in it and
uninterested in rising above it.

The next quarter-century proved just how wrong those assumptions were. How
the white South responded to the civil rights movement is the subject of There Goes My Everything: White Southerners in the Age of Civil
Rights, 1945-1975
, by Jason Sokol, a young scholar who has done
exhaustive research in primary sources and who has shown how difficult it is to
generalize about white Southerners in that time of astonishing social, political
and cultural upheaval. He gives all due attention to those who reacted bitterly,
noisily and sometimes violently to black protest, but he also shows how some
whites were embarrassed by these troublemakers and sought other ways to deal
with change. Without ever losing sight of the indisputable justice and necessity
of the civil rights movement, Sokol manages to understand those who were caught
on the sidelines yet found their lives irreversibly altered.

The history of complex Southern feelings about the subjugated blacks in their
midst is as long as the history of slavery and segregation. New evidence of this
is brought to light by Joan E. Cashin in First Lady of the Confederacy: Varina Davis’s Civil War. Her
title is somewhat misleading, as this biography of Jefferson Davis’s wife
encompasses far more than the four years of the war, but it does underscore the
point that Varina Howell Davis was involved in internal as well as external
struggles. She doesn’t seem to have questioned slavery more than occasionally
and half-heartedly, but she believed that secession was foolish and the war
unwinnable for the Confederacy. She supported her husband unflinchingly, as was
expected of wives in that time, but she disagreed with him frequently and
apparently wasn’t afraid to tell him so.

I thoroughly enjoyed and learned a great deal from both book, but if you choose one read Skokol.  I will be very surprised if this book does not win a few awards.  One quick word about biographies.  This past week two fellow Civil War bloggers addressed a question about the merits of Ed Longacre’s work.  The concern was in regard to whether the frequency of his published work threatens its overall quality.  Apart from a review I did of one of Longacres’s cavalry studies for the journal Civil War History I am not familiar with his more recent biographies so I can’t comment.  I will say, however, that I tend to stay away from historians who pump out books at a high rate, especially in the area of biography.  You can easily distinguish between those biographies that are the result of a careful reading of both the primary and relevant secondary sources.  More importantly, you can easily pick out the studies whose authors spent the necessary time thinking about their subject and trying to generate the right questions to ask.  When I pick up a biography I want to read a preface that reflects both a careful research and writing process and that involves interaction with fellow historians.  In short, I want to read a story of how the historian came to know his/her subject and this takes time.  A perfect example is the 2-volume biography of W.E.B. Dubois by David L. Lewis that I am trying to get through.

Perhaps I could have simply said that I am not a fan of production-line history.


Thank You Keith Ellison

I couldn’t be more pleased with the decision of Congressman-elect Keith Ellison of Minnesota who has decided that he will be sworn into office with the Koran.  [Here is the story from the Chicago Tribune.] Of course, the blogosphere quickly heated up following this announcement.  Here is one example from Dennis Prager: "He should not be allowed to do so, not because of any American
hostility to the Koran, but because the act undermines American culture."  Is there a passage in the Constitution that our strict constructionists can point to that outlines a Bible only swearing in ceremony? They were concerned about concepts like corruption, government power, sovereignty, and representation.  Sorry, but on this one it is safe to conclude that the Founders were "multiculturalists."

Thanks to Eugene Volokh over at National Review Online for pointing out the absurdity of Prager’s and other criticisms of Ellison:

Of course, some might care less about making the oath more effective, and more
about using the oath to reinforce traditional American values, in which they
include respect for the Bible (the “only … book” “America is interested in”)
over other holy books. That, I take it, is part of Prager’s argument, especially
when he goes on to say, “When all elected officials take their oaths of office
with their hands on the very same book, they all affirm that some unifying value
system underlies American civilization.”

Yet this would literally violate
the Constitution’s provision that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a
Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” For the
devout, taking an oath upon a religious book is a religious act. Requiring the
performance of a religious act using the holy book of a particular religion is a
religious test. If Congress were indeed to take the view that “If you are
incapable of taking an oath on that book [the Bible], don’t serve in Congress,”
it would be imposing an unconstitutional religious test.

What’s more,
the Constitution itself expressly recognizes the oath as a religious act that
some may have religious compunctions about performing. The religious-test clause
is actually part of a longer sentence: “The Senators and Representatives …
[and other state and federal officials] shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation,
to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required ….”
The option of giving an affirmation rather than oath reflects the judgment — an
early multiculturalist judgment — in favor of accommodating members of some
denominations (such as Quakers) who read the Bible as generally prohibiting the
swearing of oaths.

These doomsday cries have become all too common, but we should keep in mind that they are empirical claims; in other words, the burden is on Prager to show how someone’s faith other than Christianity constitutes a threat to "American culture." Last time I checked our Constitution protected freedom of religion.  Isn’t the idea that religion should not be a test for office part of our culture and history? 

I can’t help but think that this has little to do with culture and congressional history and everything to do with an irrational paranoia about Islam.  Does taking the oath of office on the Bible necessarily lead to a more responsible representative?  Do I even have to answer this question?  What I find even more interesting is the very real possibility that there have been at least a small number of public servants who have taken the oath with the Bible, but are not "true believers."  In other words, they just went through the motions.  Why does this not bother anyone?  Why isn’t an insincere oath not seen as a threat to our national culture.  Isn’t Ellison’s religious convictions and identification with the Koran at least worth the same amount of respect? 

I have no doubut that allowing Ellison to practice his faith openly without any of this irrational criticism can only help us on the long road back to reaching a position where we can actively and constructively engage the Islamic world.       


Assessing Ken Burns

In response to yesterday’s post on Ken Burns and the Crater a reader chimed in with a very negative assessment of The Civil War.  I’ve made regular references to Burns’s documentary throughout the life of this blog, including references to its usefulness in the classroom (and here) and as a point of contrast between popular perceptions and the more critical stance of academic historians.

I have to say that I find Burns to be quite valuable on a number of levels.  Yes, I agree that there are plenty of problems with his interpretation, but there is much to admire and value.  [For a thorough critique of the documentary see Brent Toplin’s edited collection of essays titled, Ken Burns’s The Civil War: Historians Respond.] I agree with much of what is contained in those critiques, but keep in mind that historians will always find something to analyze as falling short of the mark. In addition to factual problems, Burns spends most of his time in the Eastern Theatre, Shelby Foote tells too many goofy stories and makes some other outrageous comments, and the last section on Appomattox and reunion is way off the mark.  Still, by including historian Barbara Fields viewers are exposed to the"bottom-up" perspective of emancipation rather than the overly simplistic "great emancipator" story.  Burns does capture the horror of the battlefield and ways in which the battlefield, politics, and the home front intersect.  I could go on.

What I admire about Burns is that he never ignored the criticisms of historians; in fact, he deals with them head-on in the Toplin collection and he does so by carefully laying out the goals of a filmmaker in contrast with a more traditional historical study.  Burns was engaged and even passionate about the material that he was attempting to get across to a broad audience back in 1989.  Let’s face it, Burns’s documentary is probably the most influential interpretation in the last 25 years.  I know we would like to give the nod to McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, but I suspect that the majority of people who own the book have actually never read it or they haven’t read most of it.  I don’t mind admitting that I never read through the whole thing straight through until a graduate seminar a few years back.  It’s a dynamite book, but compared to Burns it’s boring as hell. 


Bush Orders “American Civil War” Renamed “American Sectarian Violence Conflict of 1861-1865″

A little humor from

President Bush issued an executive order today renaming the American Civil War as the "American Sectarian Violence Conflict of 1861-1865." In the name of accuracy, all references to the previous title on federal property were ordered changed by the end of December, although current history textbooks in public schools are allowed to remain in use through the end of the academic year.

"I just don’t see what was so civil about the conflict," Bush noted in a press conference. "All you really had was a lot of sectarian violence between the two sides. The truth is that it wasn’t even that bad. People just got an exaggerated viewpoint because all of the terrible things the liberal media showed on TV at the time."

Bush stressed that the important thing to remember is that "the Yankees" won because President Lincoln refused to leave until the job was done and "all the Democrats kept their darn mouths shut."

"Freeing the Mexicans was pretty good, too," he added.

With Bush refusing to acknowledge civil war in Iraq despite such a declaration by a growing number of experts, news publications, and even his former Secretary of State, Colin Powell, the White House is struggling to insure the public has the correct definition of the term.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary says war is "a state of usually open and declared armed hostile conflict between states or nations," but civil war is "a war between opposing groups of citizens of the same country." According to a White House source speaking on the condition of anonymity, the Administration’s official position is that civil wars are thus semantically impossible by technicality since "war" is only between different states.

"I don’t quite understand how it works myself," the source said, "but Karl was really insistent that we don’t ever say the words ‘civil war’ under any circumstance. . . oops."

President Bush remarked during the press conference that the renaming of the "American Sectarian Violence Conflict of 1861-1865" represented a turning point for his strategy in Iraq. "The enemy wants us to change our terminology," Bush said. "The only way we lose in Iraq is if we call it a civil war. . . oops."