Righties will fabricate myriad disses of Eric Foner, DeWitt Clinton professor of history at Columbia University, but in fact he’s enormously respected among other historians. His book Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (Harper & Row, 1988) is THE most respected book ever on that complex period. (I was going to call him a “rock star” among American historians, but Tom at Corrente beat me to it.) He specializes in 19th-century history, meaning he is well acquainted with the bottom-of-the-barrel presidents like Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, and Andrew Johnson.
And Foner says George W. Bush is the worst president ever. He combines, Foner writes, the worst qualities of the worst presidents — “the lapses of leadership, misguided policies and abuse of power of his failed predecessors.”
At a time of national crisis, Pierce and Buchanan, who served in the eight years preceding the Civil War, and Johnson, who followed it, were simply not up to the job. Stubborn, narrow-minded, unwilling to listen to criticism or to consider alternatives to disastrous mistakes, they surrounded themselves with sycophants and shaped their policies to appeal to retrogressive political forces (in that era, pro-slavery and racist ideologues). Even after being repudiated in the midterm elections of 1854, 1858 and 1866, respectively, they ignored major currents of public opinion and clung to flawed policies. Bush’s presidency certainly brings theirs to mind.
Harding and Coolidge are best remembered for the corruption of their years in office (1921-23 and 1923-29, respectively) and for channeling money and favors to big business. They slashed income and corporate taxes and supported employers’ campaigns to eliminate unions. Members of their administrations received kickbacks and bribes from lobbyists and businessmen. “Never before, here or anywhere else,” declared the Wall Street Journal, “has a government been so completely fused with business.” The Journal could hardly have anticipated the even worse cronyism, corruption and pro-business bias of the Bush administration.
When I was a girl, we were taught that the Teapot Dome scandal was the nadir (or the pinnacle, if you want to visualize it that way) of federal government corruption. But if you look at the details of the Teapot Dome scandal now, Teapot Dome seems downright picayune. Those people were amateur crooks; we’ve brought in the pros.
Despite some notable accomplishments in domestic and foreign policy, Nixon is mostly associated today with disdain for the Constitution and abuse of presidential power. Obsessed with secrecy and media leaks, he viewed every critic as a threat to national security and illegally spied on U.S. citizens. Nixon considered himself above the law.
You get the picture.
IMO the measure of good and bad presidents is whether they have left the country in worse shape or better shape. Look at the cumulative effects of their administrations, in other words. Yeah, Franklin Roosevelt made mistakes — the internment of Japanese American was inexcusable — but you can’t say the man didn’t leave the country in better shape than it was when he found it. Bad presidents, on the other hand, leave wreckage behind for others to clean up. Pierce and Buchanan dumped a civil war on Lincoln. Andrew Johnson’s disastrous Reconstruction policies left us with unresolved racial problems we are still struggling to address. Calvin Coolidge bequeathed the Great Depression to poor Hoover (who was a decent guy, on the whole, but he was out of his depth).
Foner has been around the block enough times to know that historians — and the public — change their minds. Warren Harding enjoyed wide popularity when he died in office in 1923. It wasn’t until after his death the stories came out — about Teapot Dome (which wasn’t Harding’s doing), and Harding’s predilection for keeping mistresses hidden in White House closets. On the other hand, Ulysses S. Grant’s presidential record and reputation continue to be unfairly trashed, but in recent years some historians have reconsidered his administration and have given him an upgrade.
But on the whole, Foner says, historians’ rankings of presidents “display a remarkable year-to-year uniformity.” And you sure don’t have to be a university professor to see the damage Bush is doing. Most of us won’t live long enough to see his messes cleaned up.