Reidblog [The Reid Report blog]

Think at your own risk.
Wednesday, December 07, 2005
Worse than James Buchanan?
"Poor James Buchanan" the article reads... he's widely considered to be the worst American president ever (this quite decent White House bio explains some of the reasons why, as does this bio...) But an emerging consensus among presidential historians suggests that our current president will not do much better in the rankings:

IS GEORGE BUSH THE WORST PRESIDENT -- EVER?
By Richard Reeves

[Exerpt] ...Buchanan set the standard, a tough record to beat. But there are serious people who believe that George W. Bush will prove to do that, be worse than Buchanan. I have talked with three significant historians in the past few months who would not say it in public, but who are saying privately that Bush will be remembered as the worst of the presidents.

There are some numbers. The History News Network at George Mason University has just polled historians informally on the Bush record. Four hundred and fifteen, about a third of those contacted, answered -- maybe they were all crazed liberals -- making the project as unofficial as it was interesting. These were the results: 338 said they believed Bush was failing, while 77 said he was succeeding. Fifty said they thought he was the worst president ever. Worse than Buchanan.

This is what those historians said -- and it should be noted that some of the criticism about deficit spending and misuse of the military came from self-identified conservatives -- about the Bush record:

  • He has taken the country into an unwinnable war and alienated friend and foe alike in the process;

  • He is bankrupting the country with a combination of aggressive military spending and reduced taxation of the rich;
  • He has deliberately and dangerously attacked separation of church and state;
  • He has repeatedly "misled," to use a kind word, the American people on affairs domestic and foreign;
  • He has proved to be incompetent in affairs domestic (New Orleans) and foreign (Iraq and the battle against al-Qaida);
  • He has sacrificed American employment (including the toleration of pension and benefit elimination) to increase overall productivity;

  • He is ignorantly hostile to science and technological progress;

  • He has tolerated or ignored one of the republic's oldest problems, corporate cheating in supplying the military in wartime.

  • Quite an indictment. It is, of course, too early to evaluate a president. That, historically, takes decades, and views change over times as results and impact become more obvious. Besides, many of the historians note that however bad Bush seems, they have indeed since [sic] worse men around the White House. Some say Buchanan. Many say Vice President Dick Cheney.
    Not sure if that "since" should have been "seen" or if it was meant to read "there have been worse..." Anyway, you get the point. (Read the entire article here). The survey Reeves referred to was actually conducted in 2004 (here's a link with a more detailed analysis of the informal poll. A key point: "Contrary to the conservative stereotype of academics as anti-American, the reasons that many historians cited for seeing the Bush presidency as a disaster revolve around their perception that he is undermining traditional American practices and values. As one patriotic historian put it, “I think his presidency has been the worst disaster to hit the United States and is bringing our beloved country to financial, economic, and social disaster.”").

    Of course, there are historians who are sympathetic to Mr. Bush, like Richard Brookhiser, Kenneth Pollack and at times, Robert Dallek, and conservatives will likely point out that there may be a certain snobbery involved in the historical assessment of Mr. Bush, who despite his educational credentials, is not considered to be too bright (though the assessments of the very bright Mr. Buchanan seem to dash that theory). But the bottom line is that I think that because times and technologies have changed, the histories of presidents are nowadays, largely written in the present tense. Mr. Bush is being assessed based on the trajectory of events now, not on their long-term effects. If in 20 years Iraq is a model democracy, perceptions of Mr. Bush may abate. But I suspect that because of the high drama of his presidency after 9/11, the fact that new information is constantly being discovered now, rather than unearthed in years to come a la Nixon, Kennedy and Johnson, and because of the distinctively ideological and some would say reckless way he has run the country, Bush won't fare well in the long run of history, or get better with time as Reagan did.

    The other problem for Mr. Bush is that unlike those previous presidnets (throw in Clinton too) there are no undeniably positive effects of his presidency to contrast with the negatives. For Clinton, hisimpeachment looks more and more political with time, while his sterling economy, efforts in the Middle East and Ireland, and the quick, no casualties victory in Kosovo stand. With Reagan, the chugging economy offsets the deficits and the "feel good" resurgence of American pride, plus the fall of the Soviet Union on his watch hold Iran-Contra at bay. Nixon has China and a host of domestic do-gooderism to go with his Watergate and Vietnam. Johnson has the civil rights acts to go with his 'Nam. Kennedy has the Cuban missile crisis and Berlin to go with Fiddle and Faddle, and at least Jimmy Carter has the Camp David accords and his sterling post-presidency. Bush's dad doesn't have much -- except kicking Saddam out of Kuwait. And his son has even less. Tax cuts for the wealthy don't lively up the history books. A disastrous hurricane, a worse war, squandering 9/11 and waging a religious jihad against science kinda do.

    Sorry Dubya.

    For true history junkies only, here's a virtual eight-course meal of historians' takes on Mr. Bush and his decision to invade Iraq.

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    posted by JReid @ 10:16 AM  
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