The Plank

Is Bush The Worst President Ever?


According to this poll, 61% of professional historians think George W. Bush is the worst president of all time. Matt Yglesias adds:

More interestingly, I also take the view that Bush is probably correct
to think that history will remember him kindly. American presidents
associated with big dramatic events tend to wind up with good
reputations whether they deserve them or not. One possible Bush analogy
would be to Woodrow Wilson, who did all kinds of things with regard to
civil liberties that look indefensible today and whose foreign policy
ended as a giant failure, but who was associated with both big events
and with big ideas that were influential down the road. Someday, I bet
there will be democracies in the Middle East and some future Republican
president will figure out a way to put meat on the bones of
"compassionate conservatism" and Bush will be looked upon as a
far-sighted figure who made some mistakes in a difficult period of
time. Will he deserve a good reputation? No. Will he get one? I'd say

Really? First off, Wilson did do a lot of good things, despite/notwithstanding everything listed above. Second, are there any presidents besides Wilson for which Yglesias' claim is true? Washington, FDR, and Lincoln were all present for big events and are all adored by historians--but they were also truly great presidents. Meanwhile, LBJ and Nixon were around for some rather big moments, and history has been kind to neither of them. George H.W. Bush fought the first Gulf War and saw the Berlin Wall fall, and he is considered no more than average.

Commenting on the same poll, Ross Douthat remarks:

And yes, it's also easy to imagine a future in which Bush ends up
judged not only a failure, but a worse chief executive than James
Buchanan and Herbert Hoover - though for this to happen, I would
submit, the worst Bush-created disasters would have to still be ahead
of us, since neither the occupation of Iraq nor anything else our
current POTUS has been involved in rivals the Civil War or the Great
Depression for sheer destructive impact.

All of which is to say that sixty-one percent of the historians'
sample are ax-grinding fools whose nitwittery dishonors their
profession. Judge Bush a failure by all means, but the fact that his
legacy is only beginning its long unspooling ought to give anyone with
even a glancing knowledge of history's cunning passages - let alone a
so-called "professional" - pause before pronouncing his administration
the worst in American history.

Ross' first comment is beside the point; after all, Hoover was not responsible for the great depression, and Buchanan was not responsible for the civil war. Bush IS responsible for the war in Iraq; he did not simply exacerbate a bad situation. Finally, I agree with Ross that Bush is probably not the worst president of all time (in terms of sheer destructive impact, Nixon has to take the cake), but is it really all that ridiculous to think he is? Historians tend to grade presidents not purely on their utilitarian impact on the world--instead they look at things like management of the bureacracy, competence, public support, international approval, etc. Under a rating criterion like that, it's not so absurd to think that 43 may in fact be 43/43.

--Isaac Chotiner 

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