It’s no small surprise that so many of us think of George W. Bush as the worst president in history. The latest issue of Rolling Stone takes a look at this saying “Bush is in serious contention for the title of worst ever.”
In early 2004, an informal survey of 415 historians conducted by the nonpartisan History News Network found that eighty-one percent considered the Bush administration a “failure.” Among those who called Bush a success, many gave the president high marks only for his ability to mobilize public support and get Congress to go along with what one historian called the administration’s “pursuit of disastrous policies.” In fact, roughly one in ten of those who called Bush a success was being facetious, rating him only as the best president since Bill Clinton — a category in which Bush is the only contestant.
Among the reasons why the historians feel that Bush is the worst president in history is his “Credibility Gap”:
No previous president appears to have squandered the public’s trust more than Bush has. In the 1840s, President James Polk gained a reputation for deviousness over his alleged manufacturing of the war with Mexico and his supposedly covert pro-slavery views. Abraham Lincoln, then an Illinois congressman, virtually labeled Polk a liar when he called him, from the floor of the House, “a bewildered, confounded and miserably perplexed man” and denounced the war as “from beginning to end, the sheerest deception.” But the swift American victory in the war, Polk’s decision to stick by his pledge to serve only one term and his sudden death shortly after leaving office spared him the ignominy over slavery that befell his successors in the 1850s. With more than two years to go in Bush’s second term and no swift victory in sight, Bush’s reputation will probably have no such reprieve.
And, the ultimate test:
History may ultimately hold Bush in the greatest contempt for expanding the powers of the presidency beyond the limits laid down by the U.S. Constitution. There has always been a tension over the constitutional roles of the three branches of the federal government. The Framers intended as much, as part of the system of checks and balances they expected would minimize tyranny. When Andrew Jackson took drastic measures against the nation’s banking system, the Whig Senate censured him for conduct “dangerous to the liberties of the people.” During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln’s emergency decisions to suspend habeas corpus while Congress was out of session in 1861 and 1862 has led some Americans, to this day, to regard him as a despot. Richard Nixon’s conduct of the war in Southeast Asia and his covert domestic-surveillance programs prompted Congress to pass new statutes regulating executive power.
The great read in Rolling Stone closes with a quote from a truly great president about the “judgments of history”:
“Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history,” said Abraham Lincoln. “We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation.”