Bush: the Worst President Ever

And now, the long-awaited justification for my coronation of Bush as our nation's worst chief executive:

There are essentially two criteria by which a president should be judged: how they respond to crises, and how long the positive changes they make last, or the negative ones take to undo.

Washington, Lincoln and FDR have to be considered the three greatest, in some order. Washington resisted the temptation to become a monarch in all but name, and by stepping down after two terms set a precedent that was followed until FDR. He also defused the first major national crisis, the Whiskey Rebellion. Lincoln of course brought the Civil War to a close and ended slavery; furthermore, he seems to have had a real shot at bringing the South back to the Union peacefully and in accord with Northern values until a bullet turned the job over to his incompetent successor, Andrew Johnson. FDR brought the United States out of the Depression and through WWII, and while some of his social policies may have been overzealous, he set the United States on an egalitarian course that was unchallenged until Reagan, and of which major elements (Social Security, Medicare, etc.) persist today. Reagan also deserves credit for hastening the fall of the Soviet Union and paving the way for the economic recovery of the nineties, though he clearly does not rank among the top three.

Now to compare our unfortunate president against these titans of history may be a bit unfair, so let's take a gander at the bottom of the barrel. Grant and Harding were incompetent; not themselves corrupt, they were totally unfit for office and were ruthlessly swindled by their closest advisers. Fortunately, corruption is quickly remedied by regime change, and their failings were short-lived. Andrew Johnson, on the other hand, seriously botched Reconstruction, but by the end of his career he was so enfeebled by the Radical Republicans that his impact was negligible. Often pre-Civil War presidents such as Fillmore, Pierce and Buchannan are censured by historians for their failures to avert the Civil War, but in my opinion it was sixty-three years in the making and all but unavoidable. Nixon failed to get out of Vietnam in a timely fashion, but his only major failing was Watergate, which despite shaking the nation’s confidence in the presidency was actually rather minor. In addition, his visit to China and steps toward d├ętente were important.

The worst president, until our own, was Rutherford B. Hayes (also, incidentally, a serious contender for the worst presidential name, but the two are probably not related). Hayes was never elected president; only a massively obvious vote fraud put him in front of the Democratic (read Southern) candidate, and to avoid a showdown he struck the most insidious deal in American history. In return for Samuel J. Tilden conceding the election, Hayes agreed to dismantle reconstruction and remove all Union troops from the South, only 12 years after the end of the Civil War. While Reconstruction was flawed, it was making progress; many Southern states have had the only black senators or governors in their history during the post-Civil War period. Through this act and his later tolerance of the Jim Crow laws, Hayes set the stage for ninety years of segregation.

And now, George W. Bush. Bush faced a major crisis early in his presidency, September 11th (Katrina, in the eyes of history, was rather minor, though revealing). Bush at first responded rather admirably, with an entirely justified and internationally supported campaign against Afghanistan, using minimal American troops and quickly handing power to a relatively democratic Afghan government. Then of course came the Iraq War, which undermined reconstruction in Afghanistan, sent Iraq toward civil war (though life under Saddam Hussein was no picnic), and undermined U.S. credibility for years to come. In addition, Bush used September 11th to justify the largest assault on civil liberties since World War I.

What is worse, however, is how thoroughly he has eroded the capacity of the United States government to fulfill its primary function, to govern. Bush came into office as a firm disciple of the neoconservatives, who having chafed under eight years out of the spotlight, came back into power with an appetite for vengeance. The neoconservatives held that they wanted to radically change the government, and that the established, professional bureaucracy was their enemy in this mission. They set out to staff all important positions with loyal Republicans in order to carry out this agenda, and as eight prosecutors recently found out, no job was safe. At every level, Bush has made function subservient to ideology and obedience, replacing experienced bureaucrats with incompetent functionaries. A few examples: FEMA director Michael Brown, who in a few short years turned the agency which responded quietly and admirably to Hurricane Andrew into the one which botched Katrina to extent which needs no description; Donald Rumsfeld, who went straight from manipulating pre-war intelligence to mismanaging the war itself thanks to his dismissal of advice from experienced generals; the Department of the Interior (as a whole) which has been staffed by former oil executives intent on signing away as much of our national resources for as little as possible, and the EPA, which has cut environmental regulations and national parks set up by the Clinton Administration.

Bush has damaged our international credibility more severely than even Vietnam could, has turned a record-setting surplus into a record-setting debt, has turned partisan warfare from into an ideal, has wasted thousands of American and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives, and has gutted our government of those who know how to run it. We can only hope that our forty-third president will always remain our worst, and that his disastrous example is not soon forgotten.


John Galt said...

I'm no fan of Bush, so this shouldn't be viewed as a defense in any real sense, but I do dispute the claim that Bush is so obviously the worst ever president of this country. Rather than bicker over the two criteria for presidential judgment listed by the author, I would just point out that "how long the [...] negative [changes a president makes] take to undo" is extremely hard to judge while the president is still in power. Also, the Iraq situation can hardly be considered worse than Vietnam (as far as I know, it was pretty bad), which the author claims does not merit condemnation of Richard Nixon. Furthermore, the damage Bush has done to the US bureacracy is surely no worse than that done under some of the most corrupt administrations, e.g. Grant or Harding, but the author asserts that these damages were, in fact, "short-lived." What's to say Bush's won't be?

Bush has made more than his share of mistakes, but this condemnation isn't an easy one to make, especially given the criteria listed and the lack of historical hindsight.

Anonymous said...

While for the most part I agree with your evaluations of the 42 past U.S. Presidents, I want to throw in a couple of tidbits that may cause you to rethink your entire ranking. (While I, too, am not a fan of President Bush, I'm extremely hesitant to call him "The Worst President Ever.")

You say that "[President] Bush used September 11th to justify the largest assault on civil liberties since World War I." I bring up on this forum again two instances in which President Lincoln put forth attacks on civil liberties.

In 1861, Lincoln allowed Gen. Winfield Scott to suspend the writ of habeas corpus and, under that suspension, arrest Maryland cavalryman John Merryman, a U.S. citizen. (Mind you, even President Bush has not yet tried to suspend habeas corpus for U.S. citizens.) Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney, in Ex parte Merryman, ruled that this act was unconstitutional. Most say that Lincoln "disregarded" the Chief Justice's ruling; however, some scholars now believe that President Lincoln, in retaliation to the ruling, authorized (and quickly aborted) a warrant for Chief Justice Taney's arrest. How's that for "presidential arrogance?"

In 1865, after Congress passed an act allowing Lincoln to suspend habeas corpus for U.S. citizens, a Presidentially-approved military tribunal sentenced Lambdin Milligan to hang for plotting to steal Union weapons and invade Union POW camps. In this case, the very use of a military tribunal---not a trial by jury---against a U.S. citizen and civilian was problematic.

I could say the similar things about President Franklin Roosevelt, and how by strong-arming and threatening the Supreme Court with his court-packing plan he forced them to retreat from issuing decisions with consistent logic (search: "The Switch in Time That Saved Nine).

Demosthenes said...

To john galt's comment, I acknowledge the difficulty of judging a president while he is still in office, but think that my position is justified, despite the necessary condensation of historical evidence. With regard to Vietnam, that was the work of four different presidents, so it is hard to hold any one of Eisenhower, Kennedy, LBJ and Nixon accountable; in addition, all four had a great deal more redeeming qualities than Bush. Also, what distinguishes Bush's corruption is its downward extent. Grant and Harding's corruption was generally confined to the top, where profits could easily be made by their closest advisors. Bush seeks to fundamentally shift the nature of the federal government, and has tried to infuse radical right-wing ideology into the darkest recesses of the government.

To voiceofreason, I can only respond by pointing out the difficulties inherent in the phrase "U.S. citizen" given the condition of civil war. I will not, however, deny that Lincoln was perhaps an excessively strong executive at times, but surely the Civil War is a greater justification for such actions than the Iraq War. FDR was in fact successfully dissuaded from his plan by congressional revolt, and made no further attempts to subvert the system; compare this to Bush's simple avoidance of the laws by conducting torture and widespread surveillance in secret.