Is George W Bush the worst president in US history?

Mon, Jan 19, 2009, 00:00

Robert McElvainesays 'yes', over 60 per cent of US historians ranked Bush as the worst president. They had good reason to do so, says , while Fintan O'Tooleargues 'no', that ranking Bush as the worst ever can be a way of forgetting the violence and abuse of power that have shadowed so much of US history

YES:YOU STILL see them occasionally: the square black decals with white lettering that say: “W the President”. One cannot help but wonder what the occupants of a car displaying such a sticker can be thinking.

In the minds of some, it could be that “W” stands for “white” at a time when the incoming president is “B”. For his part, George Bush seems to have fancied that W stands for “Wayne”.

He tried to restore the Wayne’s World that had expired in the late 1960s – John Wayne’s World. Like JW, GW play-acted at being a cowboy . . . and a soldier.

As J Wayne was a fake cowboy, a celluloid warrior and a loudly self-proclaimed patriot, full of machismo, who avoided going to war,

G Walker has been a fake cowboy, a man who dressed up in a flight jacket, and a loudly self-proclaimed patriot, full of machismo, who used the National Guard to avoid war.

Historians are in a better position than others to make judgments about how a current president’s policies and actions compare with those of his predecessors. Those judgments are always subject to change in light of future developments. But that is no reason not to make them now.

I conducted, through the History News Network, two informal surveys of United States historians, in 2004 and 2008, on how they rate the Bush presidency. Among those who responded were several of the nation’s most respected historians, including Pulitzer and Bancroft Prize winners.

In the first, 81 per cent of the respondents rated Bush’s presidency a failure, and 19 per cent classified it as a success. Last spring, 98 per cent of the historians who participated in the survey indicated that the Bush presidency was a failure, with only 2 per cent saying it was a success.

More striking was the dramatic increase in the percentage of historians who rate the Bush presidency the worst in US history. In 2004, only 11.6 per cent of the respondents rated Bush’s presidency last. Four years later, the share of historians concluding that the presidency that will end tomorrow is the worst in the nation’s history had increased almost six-fold, to 61 per cent.

Most of those who did not assign Bush to the lowest place gave that distinction to James Buchanan, under whom the Union disintegrated in 1860-61. (As well as the 61 per cent who ranked Bush as the worst of the nation’s 42 presidents, another 35 per cent of the historians surveyed rated the Bush presidency in the 31st-41st category, while only four of the 109 respondents ranked it as even among the top two-thirds of US administrations.)

That survey, moreover, was conducted before the economic collapse that has crowned the negative achievements of the second President Bush. One suspects that the percentage of historians rating him dead last would be even greater today.

What other president can present the following exhibits in making his case for being the worst?

Failing to respond to warnings that a terrorist organisation was planning a major attack on American soil;

Squandering the goodwill of the world that poured out after the nation was attacked by terrorists;

Using a disinformation campaign to lead the nation into a war of choice;

Failing totally to respond to a great natural disaster (Hurricane Katrina) and allowing the near-destruction of a major city;

Undermining the constitutional rights of US citizens and allowing torture;

Inheriting a budget surplus and turning it into the largest deficit in US history;

Slashing taxes on the very rich and cutting regulation of financial markets, thereby concentrating income at the very top and precipitating the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression.

Can you bottom that, President Buchanan? What can Bush and his advocates present on the positive side as his case is appealed to the court of history?

There is the fact that there have been no further terrorist attacks in the US since 2001. Some credit must be due to the administration in charge during this period. There is also his initiative to combat Aids in Africa. And there is . . . ? It is difficult to think of any other positive accomplishments of the outgoing administration.

Bush, it must be admitted, found a way simultaneously to diminish the flow of illegal immigrants, undermine the power of such potentially hostile nations as Russia, Iran, and Venezuela, and cause the price of fuel to fall. Such beneficial effects of the Bush Depression should be placed into evidence. But the case is now closed: George W Bush is the worst president in US history.

“W” stands for Worst.

Historian Robert S McElvaine is Elizabeth Chisholm Professor of Arts Letters at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi.

His latest book is Grand Theft Jesus: The Hijacking of Religion in America(Crown)

NO:LAST YEAR, the wonderfully dyspeptic Randy Newman released a song called A Few Words in Defence of Our Country. His mock vindication of George Bush hinged on damnation by the faintest of praise:

Now the leaders we have

While they’re the worst we’ve had

Are hardly the worst

This poor world has seen.

The best thing that can be said for Bush, he suggested, is that he was not as bad as Hitler, Stalin, King Leopold of Belgium, or some of the Caesars who slept with their own sisters. It has to be admitted that Newman’s strategy, albeit satiric, is actually the best line of defence for Bush. He is far too small a figure to be remembered as a monster – not quite the historic vindication he and his diminished band of admirers might have wished for.

Yet, beyond the realms of satire, there is a good reason to be cautious about the glee with which Bush is dismissed as the worst president in US history. All the charges that Robert McElvaine and other historians make against him are justified. But there is a real danger in the WPE (worst president ever) syndrome. It implies that Bush was an aberration from the norm in the US. The message – and Barack Obama deployed it with skill – is that that norm consists in lawfulness, idealism, decency in international affairs and fairness at home. Bush’s administration represented a departure from these standards. Now he’s gone, the “real” US can simply reassert itself.

The problem is that, in this respect, WPE misrepresents both the nature of US power and the scale of Obama’s task if he is to bring about real change. Bush was not just a village idiot who captured the most powerful office in the world by some weird fluke. A two-term president, he got elected and re-elected because he spoke to values and attitudes that have deep roots in US culture. He tapped in to a strain of US nationalism that is deeply wedded to violence, power and an urge to dominate at all costs.

US history is shaped in part by idealism, by notions of public virtue and civic engagement, and by magnificent resistance to injustice. It is also shaped by slavery, genocide and a relentlessly expansionist will to power. Bush and his neoconservative ideologues didn’t invent the barbarism long intertwined with US civilisation. There is far more continuity between his and previous presidencies than WPE syndrome imagines.

Even the indisputably great George Washington was known to the Iroquois, as the Seneca chief Cornplanter told him in 1790, as “Town Destroyer”, and, he added, “our children cling to the necks of their mothers” when they heard the name. The equally great Thomas Jefferson created a “civilisation programme” for the Indians which amounted to a choice between adopting European ways or, in effect, being exterminated. The towering Abraham Lincoln, probably the greatest of US presidents, ordered the largest mass execution in US history – of Dakota Indian prisoners – and presided over a concentration camp for the Navajos at Bosque Redondo that made Guantánamo look like Butlins. None of this is to suggest that figures like Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln deserve the same historical obloquy as Bush. But it is important to recognise that every president of the 18th and 19th centuries oversaw the operation of slavery or the Indian genocide or both. Beside these crimes against humanity, even the folly and viciousness of Bush’s invasion of Iraq and sanctioning of torture become less egregious.

Even within the last 40 years, the violations of international law, the US constitution and common decency overseen by other presidents rival, and in some cases outstrip, Bush’s misdeeds. Is the Iraq invasion really worse than the Vietnam War, for which presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon bear responsibility, and in which perhaps a million civilians died? Is it worse than the repression and terror in El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Chile and Argentina, supported, directly and indirectly, by Nixon and Reagan? Is the mendacity that accompanied the Iraq war – which was supported by Congress – a worse abuse of the constitution than Nixon’s secret invasion of Cambodia, without congressional knowledge, in 1970? Is it worse than Reagan’s explicit defiance of Congress in carrying out a secret, parallel foreign policy in the Iran-Contra scandals? Hardly.

The point is not that Bush deserves to be remembered as anything other than a disastrous president. It is that WPE can act as an excuse for amnesia. We need to remember that Barack Obama’s historic task is not to be better than George Bush – a task he could accomplish even if he stayed in bed for the next four years. It is to be better than the long history in the US of shooting first and asking questions later.

Fintan O’Toole’s books on the US include White Savage: William Johnson and the Invention of Americaand (with Tony Kinsella) Post Washington: Why America Can’t Rule the World