Friday, April 21, 2006

The Worst President Ever?

Criticizing George Bush has become a lot like shooting fish in a barrel. While taking shots at him once seemed like good sport, it's a whole lot less fun these days because it's so easy.

You see, there simply is no question that he's making a run at being one of the worst presidents ever, if not the worst, and how entertaining can it be to pick on such a loser? As well as the decidedly un-fun reality that it will take years to undo the damage he has done -- if the damage can be undone at all.

My conservative friends (you both know who you are!) have run out of ways to defend a man that even fellow Republicans are abandoning in droves, so they fall back on that old reliable:
Historians will judge George Bush to have been a visionary who was the right man for the times.
For a while, I sort of bought into the first part of that notion.

The guy really did seem to come up with some big ideas like reforming Social Security and Medicare. But his Social Security plan was such quackery that you can't really praise someone for being forwarding looking when they're actually looking up their backside, while the Medicare plan imploded because (a la the disaster that followed the Katrina disaster) no one bothered to sweat the details. Then there was his initiative to spread democracy in the Middle East, which sounded pretty good until I realized that his modus operandus was to insist on American-style democracy (such as in Iraq) at point of gun and to piss on anything that was not swaddled in red, white and blue bunting.

Note further that Bush makes no pretense of proposing anything remotely visionary in the foreseeable future. Pathetically, his only goal is to try to keep Republican control of Congress, which is all you need to know about Karl Rove's transfer back into the Department of Bare Knuckle Politics earlier this week.

I never bought into the second part -- that Bush was the right man for the times.

Here is a man with a frat boy smirk who was born with a gold spoon in his mouth, sat out the Vietnam War because of his daddy's pull, never had to deal with failure because family and friends were always there to bail him out, forbids dissent like a certain defense secretary and runs from confrontation, doesn't have an intellectual cell in his brain, let alone an original thought, and with the conspicuous exception of bravely facing up to his drug and alcohol problems a few years ago has done nothing whatsoever to show that he is presidential timber.


Now comes Princeton historian Sean Wilentz, who writes in a Rolling Stone cover story that:
George W. Bush's presidency appears headed for colossal historical disgrace. Barring a cataclysmic event on the order of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, after which the public might rally around the White House once again, there seems to be little the administration can do to avoid being ranked on the lowest tier of U.S. presidents. And that may be the best-case scenario. Many historians are now wondering whether Bush, in fact, will be remembered as the very worst president in all of American history.
Wilentz notes from the jump that historians tend to be a lot more cautious than they're portrayed and do not leap to overarching conclusions like "worst ever" without considerable thought. Indeed, surveys of historians who consider themselves conservative or liberal have remarkably similar results, although as a group they're certainly more liberal than the general public.

Some highlights of the piece:

* Since the outset of reliable public-opinion polling in the 1940s, only Richard Nixon has seen his ratings fall as low as Bush's in his second term. No president, including Harry Truman, has experienced such a steady decline as Bush has since his high point after 9/11.
Apart from sharp but temporary upticks that followed the commencement of the Iraq war and the capture of Saddam Hussein, and a recovery during the weeks just before and after his re-election, the Bush trend has been a profile in fairly steady disillusionment.
* Great presidents' reputations are built on their ability to guide the nation through great crises. Think George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt, all of whom left the nation more secure.
Calamitous presidents, faced with enormous difficulties -- Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Hoover and now Bush -- have divided the nation, governed erratically and left the nation worse off. In each case, different factors contributed to the failure: disastrous domestic policies, foreign-policy blunders and military setbacks, executive misconduct, crises of credibility and public trust. Bush, however, is one of the rarities in presidential history: He has not only stumbled badly in every one of these key areas, he has also displayed a weakness common among the greatest presidential failures -- an unswerving adherence to a simplistic ideology that abjures deviation from dogma as heresy, thus preventing any pragmatic adjustment to changing realities.
* No president has squandered the public's trust more than Bush, whose popularity ratings exeeded 90 percent after 9/11 and today are dipping into the low 30s with no reversal in sight.
The problems besetting Bush are . . . a crisis both in confidence and credibility. . . . More than half the country now considers Bush dishonest and untrustworthy, and a decisive plurality consider him less trustworthy than his predecessor, Bill Clinton -- a figure still attacked by conservative zealots as "Slick Willie."
* The 20th century has been tough on wartime presidents, and Bush has lots in common with Truman and Lyndon B. Johnson, who became bogged down in overseas conflicts (Korea and Vietnam) with no end in sight.

But Bush has become bogged down in a singularly crippling way. On September 10th, 2001, he held among the lowest ratings of any modern president for that point in a first term. . . . The attacks the following day transformed Bush's presidency, giving him an extraordinary opportunity to achieve greatness. Some of the early signs were encouraging. Bush's simple, unflinching eloquence and his quick toppling of the Taliban government in Afghanistan rallied the nation. Yet even then, Bush wasted his chance by quickly choosing partisanship over leadership.
* The decision to divert the struggle against Al Qaeda to Saddam Hussein, the favorite pre-existing target of Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld by pushing a doctrine of unprovoked war based on unproven threats has been a monumental catastrophe.

When William F. Buckley, the man whom many credit as the founder of the modern conservative movement, writes categorically, as he did in February, that "one can't doubt that the American objective in Iraq has failed," then something terrible has happened. . . . The Bush White House seems incapable of [taking the long view] except insofar as a tiny trusted circle around the president constantly reassures him that he is a messianic liberator and profound freedom fighter, on a par with FDR and Lincoln, and that history will vindicate his every act and utterance.
* No president has surpassed Bush in departing so thoroughly from his original campaign promises. He came to office in 2001 pledging to govern as a "compassionate conservative" with a more moderate domestic policy than the dominant right wing of his party.
The pledge proved hollow, as Bush tacked immediately to the hard right. . . . The heart of Bush's domestic policy has turned out to be nothing more than a series of massively regressive tax cuts -- a return, with a vengeance, to the discredited Reagan-era supply-side faith that Bush's father once ridiculed as "voodoo economics." . . . The rest of what remains of Bush's skimpy domestic agenda is either failed or failing -- a record unmatched since the presidency of Herbert Hoover.
* Almost every presidential administration has had to face charges of personal misbehavior and corruption. Several have had to defend themselves against charges of usurping of power, including Andrew Johnson, who was impeached, and Richard Nixon, who would have been had he not resigned.
History may ultimately hold Bush in the greatest contempt for expanding the powers of the presidency beyond the limits laid down by the U.S. Constitution. . . . The Bush administration . . . threatens to overturn the Framers' healthy tension in favor of presidential absolutism. Armed with legal findings by his attorney general (and personal lawyer) Alberto Gonzales, the Bush White House has declared that the president's powers as commander in chief in wartime are limitless. No previous wartime president has come close to making so grandiose a claim.
Wilentz concludes by noting that no historian can predict the future with certainty with two and a half years left in Bush's presidency. Other presidents like Truman have left office in apparent disgrace only to rebound later in the view of historians.
But so far the facts are not shaping up propitiously for George W. Bush. He still does his best to deny it. Having waved away the lessons of history in the making of his decisions, the present-minded Bush doesn't seem to be concerned about his place in history. "History. We won't know," he told the journalist Bob Woodward in 2003. "We'll all be dead."

Three presidents -- James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson and Warren G. Harding -- are routinely cited as being the worst presidents.


Buchanan because of his dithering when confronted with Southern secession in 1860. Johnson because he actively sided with former Confederates after the Civil War and undermined Reconstruction. Harding because of his incompetence and thoroughly corrupt administration.

Wilentz notes that younger historians also cast a vote for Nixon as the only American president forced to resign from office, but as much as I loathed Nixon in 1974 for what he had done to the office of president, his signal accomplishments have been a counterbalance. These include opening a dialogue with China and, although this is usually overlooked, helping jump-start the environmental movement by creating the Environmental Protection Agency.

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