The Washington Post will feature a story tomorrow, December 3, by Columbia University historian Eric Foner in which the author attempts to make the case that George W. Bush is the worst president ever. Foner is the author of Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution: 1863–1877, winner of the Bancroft Prize and many other awards. (In other words, he’s a bigshot historian.)
Foner writes: 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. Andrew 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.
First, Foner looks at the failed presidents:
–Pierce (1853-57), Buchanan (1857-61), and Johnson (1865-69), he says, were not up to the job. He describes them as “[s]tubborn, narrow-minded, unwilling to listen to criticism or to consider alternatives to disastrous mistakes. [T]hey 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.”
–Harding (1921-23) and Coolidge (1923-29) make the list because of their corruption 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.” He cites the Wall Street Journal: “Never before, here or anywhere else, has a government been so completely fused with business.”
–Nixon (1969-74) “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.”
Foner adds one other president to the list of unworthies: James K. Polk, who “should be remembered primarily for launching that unprovoked attack on Mexico and seizing one-third of its territory for the United States.” He notes Lincoln’s warning that allowing a president to decide when to attack another country would make it impossible to limit his power to make war.
I’m sure you can see where Foner is going: Bush, in his view, has committed all of the mistakes of the worst presidents in a single presidency: “[S]omehow, 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.”
Well, I have a B.A. in history; I’m entitled to rank the presidents as well. If you’re interested in the history of presidential rankings, John Dean, the former Nixon hand who was the central figure in the Watergate hearings, wrote a brief history of rankings by historians, which was first attempted in 1948 for Life magazine. The unbiquitous Wikipedia has an excellent entry as well.
The baby boomers generation has seen the regard in which certain presidents are held change during our lifetime. Woodrow Wilson, once highly regarded, doesn’t hold up so well in the light of history; his ideas about foreign policy were noble but naive; he lacked both a sense of realism and political savvy. He shut Republicans out of the delegation to Versailles after World War I and they got their revenge by refusing to ratify the peace treaty. Truman and Johnson left office as failed presidents, but both are viewed more kindly today–in Johnson’s case, thanks in no small part to the tapes of his telephone conversations. And it has come as something of a shock to see the president of our youth, John F. Kennedy, relegated to being remembered primarily as a womanizer. Of all the postwar presidents, only Ronald Reagan came close to generating the excitement and pride in his admirers that Kennedy did, and for the same reason: They were optimistic and uplifting in difficult times.
Most presidents were inconsequential: Madison (his great work was already done), Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, Tyler, Taylor, Fillmore, Hayes, Grant, Garfield, Arthur, Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, Cleveland again, McKinley, Taft, Coolidge, Kennedy (alas), Ford, Carter, Bush 41, Clinton. Perhaps I am giving short shrift to Bush 41; he was immensely successful in foreign policy, but he was a nonentity in domestic policy and he was defeated for reelection. The “inconsequentials” account for 21 of the 42 presidents before George W. Bush.
Of the remaining 22, I would put only 4 in the mythical Presidential Hall of Fame: Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt. Washington and Lincoln need no explanation. Jefferson was the first of America’s two great democratizing presidents (Jackson being the other); he presided over the most difficult transition in American history, from the aristocratic Federalists to the common-man Republicans. President Kennedy, hosting a gathering of Nobel laureates at the White House, said that they represented the greatest amount of brainpower in the White House since Thomas Jefferson dined alone. Roosevelt seems to me to be slipping a little. He restored confidence to the country in 1933, but we now know that his New Deal policies did not make a dent in the Depression. In 1935 he switched the emphasis of the New Deal from regulating the economy to programs such as social security. But when he attempted to pack the Supreme Court, and the Depression continued to linger, the Republicans swept the 1938 elections and the era of social innovation was over. From then on, he was largely a foreign-policy president, and his aid to England and Russia helped prevent Hitler from overruning Europe. To a large degree, the structure he built still dominates domestic politics today, as Americans continue to argue over big government.
The other presidents who I regard as top-drawer are:
–Andrew Jackson, the other great democratizing president and the first president to expand the power of the executive by force of will.
–James K. Polk, whom Eric Foner condemns for attacking Mexico without provocation. Polk was a creature of his time, and his time was one when “manifest destiny” was the watchword. Yes, America extended its borders all the way to the Pacific at Mexico’s expense–but does anyone propose giving Texas and California back? Honorable or not, the Mexican War was one of the decisive conflicts of modern warfare.
–Theodore Roosevelt, the first president to be a mass media figure, thereby changing the nature of the presidency from a public official to a personality.
–Harry Truman, who was reviled in office (I remember hearing a spoof of a cigarette commercial–LSMFT, Lucky Strikes Means Fine Tobacco–as “Lord Save Me From Truman”) but today is hailed for his common-sense wisdom, his desegregation of the armed forces, and the great foreign policy initiatives of the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe, the Berlin airlift at the height of the Cold War, and the Korean War.
–Ronald Reagan, who vowed to reverse the course of American political history and he did it. In the process, he created the modern Republican Party. He confronted the Evil Empire and established a relationship with its leader, enabling America to win the Cold War. He is by far the most successful American president of the postwar era.
I would also include Eisenhower and LBJ as good presidents. The case for Eisenhower is (1) he brought the Korean War to an end, (2) his acceptance of the New Deal assured that the safety net was permanently established in American politics, (3) his stature as a military leader was extremely important during the nervous years of the Cold War, and (4) his warning about the military-industrial conflict in his farewell address still echoes in American politics half a century later. Johnson was, like so many presidents, good at one aspect of the job (domestic policy) and bad at the other (foreign policy). For many years he was a carricature, but the tapes, which show him at his most skillful (in wooing his fellow politicians) and at his most human (in expressing doubts about the war) have resurrected his reputation.
On the bad side, the Foner list (minus Polk) is hard to argue with. Pierce and Buchanan were Southern sympathizers who ignored the slavery crisis and made no attempt to forestall civil war. Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Lincoln, had little political skill and got in a fight with the Republican radicals he couldn’t win. He was saved from being removed from office through impeachment by a single vote. Hoover stuck to laissez-faire orthodoxy when the Depression threatened to tear the country apart. These presidents did real harm. I think Foner is too hard on Harding; his administration was scandal-ridden (his attorney general resigned in a bribery scandal) but he wasn’t malignant, just weak, and there is even less justification for Coolidge’s presence on Foner’s list.
Who else did real harm? John Adams was a Founding Father and a true patriot of the American Revolution, but the Alien and Sedition laws that he backed–allowing deportation of undesirables and punishing free speech–were among the worst actions ever undertaken by an American president. And no list of the worst presidents would be complete without Richard Nixon, so brilliant in playing Russia and China off against each other during the Cold War, but undone by his paranoia and his determination to use his office to get even with his enemies.
And George W. Bush? I think he will be remembered less for the war in Iraq–indecisive wars have a way of becoming historical footnotes–than for his attempts to stretch the Constitution to give the executive broad powers in wartime to spy, to incarcerate, to put enemies on trial secretly, and to torture. He will be remembered for having the second-worst vice-president in history (after the treacherous Aaron Burr), for deferring to him, and for giving him a portfolio to have his own policies. In short, he has done harm to the constitutional balance, and that will earn him the condemnation of historians. My personal gripe with the president is that he presented himself to the country as “a uniter not a divider” and became the most polarizing president since Nixon, politicizing war, science, and religion. And then there is incompetence, in the response to Katrina and in the failure to rebuild Iraq. In what is almost a Sophoclean twist, he had to have his chestnuts pulled out of the fire by his father’s crowd, whom the Neocons scorned for not going into Baghdad in 1991. I hope that he decides to work with Democrats–and vice-versa–in the remaining two years of his presidency, but I think that mutual dislike may be too strong to permit it. He isn’t a worse president than Andrew Johnson or James Buchanan, and Nixon was more sinister, but 40th out of 43 is about the best he can hope for.