Sunday, December 03, 2006

historians debate whether bush is the worst president ever

Presidential historian Sean Wilentz in a recent Rolling Stone pronounced de facto President George W. Bush the worst president ever. In today's Washington Post, several other presidential historians address the subject.

Fortunately, George Bush doesn't read the newspapers, because if reading your reviews is bad for the mental health, reading THESE reviews would send him over the edge. Eric Foner pronounces Bush the worst president ever, comparing him negatively to Pierce, Buchanan, and Andrew Johnson, failures right before and after the Civil War; to Harding and Coolidge and their corrupt, beholden-to-big-business administrations; and to Nixon and his imperial presidency for sheer disdain of the Constitution and law.

Tulane professor Douglas Brinkley correctly notes there are two years left, but with Iraq in the mess it's in, it is difficult to imagine Bush's legacy there being positive -- so Bush will join Herbert Hoover as a case study of How Not to Be President.

David Greenberg says that, for the moment, Nixon was still worse than Bush. (That's like saying for the moment, having cholera is worse than having H5N1 influenza. Not a great choice.) But I disagree with Greenberg on the long-term effects of Vietnam vs Iraq. Fortunately for the US, although the actual war in Vietnam was bloody for both sides, and caused significant social dislocation at home and in Southeast Asia (not to mention millions of deaths in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos), it did NOT create a state that would shelter terrorists intent on attacking the United States. If five or 10 years from now, some terrorist group founded in the chaos of Iraq commits a major atrocity against the US, that will have to be laid squarely at Bush's feet. Greenberg nicely summarizes Bush's disdain for the law:
Bush's theory of a "unitary" executive power is little more than a restatement of a Nixon utterance: "When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal."
Vincent Cannato grumbles a bit about left-wing historians, correctly notes that the record on Bush isn't finished yet, says rather hopefully that just because things are grim now doesn't mean they will be grim in the future, and basically punts in passing a firm judgement.

Journalist Michael Lind says Bush is only the fifth-worst president, ahead of the Civil War era incompetents Pierce, Buchanan, and Andrew Johnson, and ahead of Nixon. Not the sort of company any President would want to keep.

All five of these guys are I think too generous in giving Bush a pass for personal integrity. I think willfully shredding the Constitution, condoning possibly fixed elections in 2004 (not to mention Florida in 2000), authorizing torture as an instrument of US policy, and ignoring climate change all deserve some mention -- and all weigh on the negative side of the ledger.

I think it's safe to say that no credible historian is ready to make the case for adding Bush's face to Mount Rushmore.


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