This was the question at a debate sponsored by NPR. Click here for the transcript and the broadcast. Debating for the affirmative: Simon Jenkins, a columnist for the Guardian and the Sunday Times, and Jacob Weisberg, chairman and editor-in-chief of The Slate Group, an online publishing group owned by The Washington Post Co. Debating for the negative: William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, and our old friend Karl Rove.
Here are representative comments by each of the debaters. First, Jenkins:
I had great respect for Bush when he came to power. I liked his courtesy, I liked his moderation, and I liked his concept of humility in America’s power projection. I think, tragically, after 9/11, he allowed the politics of fear to get the better of him; he persuaded my prime minister, Tony Blair, to let the politics of fear aid his re-election campaign as well. The politics of fear is the most corrosive of all forms of politics in a democracy.
Bush was never up to the job of being president, and it’s not a matter of lacking in intelligence; it’s a matter of lacking character. Bush wasn’t interested enough in policy; he couldn’t tolerate challenge or dissent or disagreement; he couldn’t open his mind long enough to consider alternatives or admit the possibility that he might sometimes be wrong. He let his righteousness and his arrogance and his anger get the better of him. And in the end, I think what’s so damning about Bush and what does make him the worst president of the last 50 years is that these were things within his control.
In the real world, the choices are not, you know, perfection, and … in the real world, he’s made a lot of tough decisions, most of them correct. … There’s no reason not to be critical of Bush, not to disagree with Bush, not to prefer Obama, not to have voted for Gore and Kerry — most people in New York, obviously, have all those views. But to think that he’s the worst president in 50 years is just silly.
I will defend the president, and I will defend the record of the last eight years. Not always successful, but enormously successful over the long term and the long sweep of history.
* * * *
If Bush is the worst president of the past fifty years – and you have to consider Nixon, Carter, Ford, and Clinton the competition – then the reason is surely not the Weisberg criticisms. Weisberg speaks for the East Coast elites when he says that Bush wasn’t interested enough in policy. That is not where the battles are won and lost. A president hires people who are interested in policy. Nor do I agree that Bush couldn’t tolerate challenge or dissent or disagreement. Weisberg is confusing Bush’s longstanding distaste for the national media with an inability to tolerate opposition.
If Bush is the worst president in fifty years, it is because he assented to the politicizing of everything: war, patriotism, justice, national security, even science. And it is because he had too little appreciation of the importance of constitutional government, and how his attempts to expand executive power made so many Americans ashamed of their country’s behavior. It is the squandering of the good will that America had accumulated over decades, even centuries, that made Bush a contender for Worst.
I used to be a debater – “Resolved, that the United States should adopt the British system of education” – and one way for the negative to win was to present a superior alternative. If not the British system, how about the German or the French? In that spirit, I offer you Richard Milhous Nixon.
He approved a criminal operation against the opposition party to be run out of the White House. He sought to bug the headquarters of the opposition party. He was impeached by the House Judiciary committee. And, just the other day, the LBJ Presidential Library released tape recordings from Lyndon Johnson’s last year in office, one of which featured Johnson saying that Nixon had committed treason in the closing days of the 1968 election by asking the South Vietnamese government not to negotiate with Johnson but to wait until he was president.
The worst that could be said about Ford or Carter is that they were ineffectual presidents, not that they were bad men. Now we come to Clinton. He was enormously talented, but he had horrible character flaws – enough to get him impeached. I don’t think the R’s should have impeached him, and their witch hunt through Kenneth Starr ended badly, but he did lie, shamelessly. The Republicans should have censured him, but they overreached, as Republicans seem fated to do. What saves Clinton from ignominy is that he was president during a time of peace and prosperity, and it was hard to make a mistake on the magnitude of Bush’s.
So I would say no, Bush was not the worst. Nixon was far worse. Ford and Carter were merely mediocre, and Clinton just wasted his talent.