Foner: W “Worst President Ever”

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.

15 thoughts on “Foner: W “Worst President Ever”

  1. I posted this some place else but it’s worth repeating.

    In George’s $500 million new library to himself I suggest that a very large photograph of him be hung as the first thing to greet visitors. The photograph will show George being sworn into the office of president. The caption underneath, in bold letters, will read, “January 20, 2001, a date that will live in infamy.”

  2. …now, Teapot Dome seems downright picayune. Those people were amateur crooks; we’ve brought in the pros.

    Some time ago, BartCop expressed it well: from governing Texas, Bush and his cronies moved on to a bigger game. I think that phrase captures it well.

    I hope someone of Foner’s stature is working on a book for this whole sorry era. Kevin Phillips and a few others have made some good starts on the project. It would be a fitting challenge for someone so well regarded for his work on the Reconstruction.

    Having witnessed this era, what impresses me is the context that was necessary to allow the most awful president ever to rise to power. It couldn’t have been done without the VRWC and the abdication by the left. In some senses Bush is really a much smaller story than the rot that took over our country, decades ago, which enabled him.

    Perhaps Foner will turn out to be our Gibbon – I hope not.

  3. The present day context of enduring the ‘worst president ever’ means that the spoiled, neurotic, incompetent, Armageddon-loving, cruel, juvenile named George Bush has too many destructive toys in his hands, and the whole world needs to pay attention to his every action or failure to act.
    Here’s the context within which we suffer GWB: global-wide networks for corporations, for economics and trade, and for information; sole super-power status; largest military in the world; nuclear warmongering ‘roulette’ posturing; global warming; resource depletion/wars; pandemic disease possibilities.

  4. That was a VERY interesting post, very informative, and three “on the money” comments, especially Felicity Smith’s finish.
    Who’da thunk back in the 2000 debates that Gore’s “lock box” vs Bush’s claim to be a “Washington outsider” (gag) would bring us to this most critical point in human history?

  5. Maha…

    I’m ashamed of myself for not having read Prof. Foner’s history of Reconstruction…

    IIRC, Prof. Foner was the beneficiary of the research done by Prof. Alan Nevins, whose 8-volume “Ordeal of the Union” I’ve quoted to you several times…

    I’ve read Nevins’ work cover-to-cover at least three times…And it’s the best “cultural history” of the period (1848-65) that’s ever been done…The amount of research that went into it still staggers me…

  6. as a history buff, I know it will be years of repercussions for Bush being in office. We will not see anything positive come of his eight years and will be suffering for it for a very long time.
    There are so many areas in which his destruction left a hole. Not just the obvious stuff like Iraq. many many unseen things going on that is not told about yet.

  7. You sure spoke the truth. What a dreadful mess the idiot resident in chief has made. He should be impeached, tried as a war criminal and locked away for life.

  8. One thing that I see is the division in the fabric of America created for political gain by Bush and his political machine. Bush’s claim to be a uniter is the exact opposite of the reality that has occured. Bush has intentionally divided America to serve his own ends.

    Bush’s history has already been written..It’s called the blogosphere, and every word written will endure like the words of Abigail Adams. “The spoken word flies,but the written word remains”

  9. In a perfect world, Bush and his enablers will live long enough to witness their legacy. Cheney will get off easy though – what he has done should be enough to shortcircuit his pacemaker.

  10. Bush’s disaster will be a permanent fixture of our nation’s history. I’ve been thinking lately that, in the future, they’ll look back at his administration as the loud ‘pop’ at the end of the American Century, when the dominant nation in the world chose to abandon its role in the world and dramatically self-destruct, clearing the way for whatever comes after.

  11. Pingback: The Mahablog » W and History

  12. This current illegal war makes Vietnam look like a late Saturday afternoon punch-ball game between 10 year-old’s.
    The fact that Shrub was an ignorant, vain, and stupid troll (a tough trifecta to meet, by the way), and never should have been a candidate for any job above “Greeter” at a Wal-Mart, was obvious to any of us who had more than two brain-cells rattling around in our cranium’s (like the last two M & M’s poured out of the bag and into a tambourine), is now immaterial.
    The proof isn’t just showing that he may be the worst President ever…
    It’s showing that he is actually one of the “WORST LEADER’S OF A MAJOR NATION,” ever.
    EVER! PERIOD!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    The word’s “Leader” and Bush” should never appear in the same book, let alone the same sentence!!!
    I’m tired of all of this “Bu-shit!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
    Here’s what we need to do (in no particular order): Investigate, Incarcerate, Impeach…

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