Following up the last post — on Eric Foner’s WaPo column — WaPo is running op eds on Bush’s place in history by several historians today. Foner (the most well-known historian in the group) has the lowest opinion of Bush — that he’s flat-out the worst POTUS who ever walked the faced of the earth. Let’s take a look at what the others say, starting with the most favorable assessment.
Vincent J. Cannato, who teaches history at the University of Massachusetts, is the most upbeat of the group. Not that he thinks Bush’s administration has been good so far. Cannato just argues that the boy’s got two more years, and maybe if the war on terror thing doesn’t turn out too badly, history will be kinder to Bush than we might assume now.
Much of Bush’s legacy will rest on the future trajectory of the fight against terrorism, the nation’s continued security and the evolving direction of the Middle East. Things may look grim today, but that doesn’t ensure a grim future.
No one expects historians to be perfectly objective. But history should at least teach us humility. Time will cool today’s political passions. As years pass, more documents will be released, more insights gleaned and the broader picture of this era will be painted. Only then will we begin to see how George W. Bush fares in the pantheon of U.S. presidents.
I don’t know how history will judge him. My guess is that, like most presidents, he will bequeath a mixed record. We can debate policies and actions now, but honesty should force us to acknowledge that real judgments will have to wait.
And, of course, he’s right in the sense that we don’t know what we don’t know. Those of us lefties who have watched this administration closely assume that the secrecy and opacity Bush is famous for is covering up corruption and ineptitude. Maybe when all the facts come out we’ll find he was only pretending to be a bad president while his Real Plan to keep us all safe and secure was proceeding splendidly.
Like Professor Cannato, David Greenberg of Rutgers reminds us that many people have dissed past administrations that turned out not to be so bad. Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon, and Reagan were all declared to be “worst presidents” by somebody, he says.
Considering these moments from history, how likely is it that George W. Bush, as many now assert, is our all-time worst president? Yes, many of us can easily tick off our own lists of Bush policies that we believe have done the United States significant harm. But any declarations that history will consign him to the bottom tier of presidents are premature. As the now-flourishing reputations of Truman, Eisenhower and Reagan attest, the antipathy a president elicits from his contemporaries usually fades over time.
On the other hand, as Eric Foner pointed out, sometimes popular presidents look less likable as the years go by.
Changes in presidential rankings reflect shifts in how we view history. When the first poll was taken, the Reconstruction era that followed the Civil War was regarded as a time of corruption and misgovernment caused by granting black men the right to vote. As a result, President Andrew Johnson, a fervent white supremacist who opposed efforts to extend basic rights to former slaves, was rated “near great.” Today, by contrast, scholars consider Reconstruction a flawed but noble attempt to build an interracial democracy from the ashes of slavery — and Johnson a flat failure.
I noted yesterday that Warren Harding was popular with the public — I don’t know what the history profs were thinking about him — until after he died in office. But after time had passed (and documents released, and insights gleaned) ol’ Warren’s popularity sank like a stone.
Anyway, Greenberg’s argument in favor of Bush boils down to at least he’s not Nixon.
While Nixon had his diehard defenders, something close to a national consensus emerged over the idea that his crimes were unprecedented and required his removal from office. Barry Goldwater conservatives and Lowell Weicker Republicans, libertarians and liberals, Main Streeters and Wall Streeters all agreed that Nixon was, if not necessarily the worst president in U.S. history, deserving of the most extreme reprimand ever visited on a commander in chief. Instead of being impeached and removed from office, Nixon resigned.
No such consensus exists for a Bush impeachment. On the contrary, in this fall’s election campaign, Democrats pointedly quashed any talk of seeking his ouster if they were to win control of Congress. One can argue that Bush’s sanctioning of illegal wiretapping by the National Security Agency constitutes an impeachable offense. His policy of depriving suspected terrorists and POWs of Geneva Convention protections may also strike some people as grounds for removal — although Congress, by acquiescing in Bush’s military detention policy last fall, made the latter argument a tougher sell.
Uh HUH, Professor Greenberg. Doesn’t wash. First, the consensus about impeaching Nixon only emerged because of the televised hearings and Nixon’s bungling responses to the investigations against him; the “Saturday night massacre” comes to mind. In W’s case, we haven’t had the investigations yet. He’s been far more successful than Nixon was in keeping the details from public view.
Further, Democrats “pointedly quashed any talk” of impeachment for purely political reasons. Conventional wisdom said that talk of impeachment would have worked against electing Democrats in the midterm elections. The lack of consensus has nothing whatsoever to do with Bush’s perceived culpability.
Michael Lind, Whitehead senior fellow at the New America Foundation, has made up his mind that Bush is only the fifth worst president, after James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Richard M. Nixon and James Madison.
James Madison? Lind picks on Madison because of the War of 1812.
Madison, the “Father of the Constitution,” was a great patriot, a brilliant intellectual — and an absolutely abysmal president. In his defense, the world situation during the Napoleonic Wars was grim. The United States was a minor neutral nation that was frequently harassed by both of the warring empires, Britain and France. But cold geopolitics should have led Washington to prefer a British victory, which would have preserved a balance of power in Europe, to a French victory that would have left France an unchecked superpower. Instead, eager to conquer Spanish Florida and seize British Canada, Madison sided with the more dangerous power against the less dangerous. It is as though, after Pearl Harbor, FDR had joined the Axis and declared war on Britain, France and the Soviet Union.
Granted, Madison was a better Constitution writer than he was a President, but most historians put Madison somewhere in the middle of the president pack. In general U.S. relations with Britain were really bad until the Grant Administration. The French Revolution had rendered France less a friend to the U.S. than it had been before, of course. But Monroe’s judgments were probably based less on what might happen to the balance of power in Europe than on which European superpower might be a better friend to the United States. Lind could have a point, but I’d have to look into it to be sure.
By contrast, George W. Bush has inadvertently destroyed only Baghdad, not Washington.
Well, yes, the Brits broke up Washington DC pretty badly in 1814. But I think it can be argued that Bush’s War will hurt the U.S. more, long-term, than the War of 1812 did.
and the costs of the Iraq war in blood and treasure are far less than those of Korea and Vietnam.
I think Vietnam will always have a special place in America’s imagination — a very dark and nasty special place. The whole nation suffered collective post-traumatic stress over Vietnam. But it will be a long time before we can compare long-term geopolitical effects of Vietnam and Iraq. After the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, southeast Asia continued to be fairly horrible — think Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge, conflicts between Vietnam and China — but the mess we’re making of the Middle East could well turn out to be a lot more horrible. We’ll see.
Now we come to Douglas Brinkley, director of the Roosevelt Center at Tulane University. Brinkley’s assessment is almost as negative as Foner’s.
Clearly it’s dangerous for historians to wield the “worst president” label like a scalp-hungry tomahawk simply because they object to Bush’s record. But we live in speedy times and, the truth is, after six years in power and barring a couple of miracles, it’s safe to bet that Bush will be forever handcuffed to the bottom rungs of the presidential ladder. The reason: Iraq.
Brinkley points out that other president have launched wars of choice — Polk in Mexico, McKinley against Spain in the Caribbean and in the Philippines — but these wars were (mostly) quick, successful, and popular. Bush’s War, on the other hand — is not.
I thought this paragraph interesting:
At first, you’d want to compare Bush’s Iraq predicament to that of Lyndon B. Johnson during the Vietnam War. But LBJ had major domestic accomplishments to boast about when leaving the White House, such as the Civil Rights Act and Medicare/Medicaid. Bush has virtually none. Look at how he dealt with the biggest post-9/11 domestic crisis of his tenure. He didn’t rush to help the Gulf region after Hurricane Katrina because the country was overextended in Iraq and had a massive budget deficit. Texas conservatives always say that LBJ’s biggest mistake was thinking that he could fund both the Great Society and Vietnam. They believe he had to choose one or the other. They call Johnson fiscally irresponsible. Bush learned this lesson: He chose Iraq over New Orleans.
Except that LBJ in 1967 asked Congress to pass a special wartime surcharge on individual and corporate income taxes to pay for the war. (Congress resisted, and didn’t pass the surcharge until LBJ had agreed to a reduction in discretionary spending.) And the problem with New Orleans and the Gulf Coast isn’t so much a lack of appropriation — Congress has allocated more than $107 billion so far — as it is wholesale corruption and incompetence. The American people, I believe, realize that something’s seriously out of whack about Gulf Coast recovery, and I’m surprised someone in Tulane hasn’t noticed.
Here’s the punch line (emphasis added):
There isn’t much that Bush can do now to salvage his reputation. His presidential library will someday be built around two accomplishments: that after 9/11, the U.S. homeland wasn’t again attacked by terrorists (knock on wood) and that he won two presidential elections, allowing him to appoint conservatives to key judicial posts. I also believe that he is an honest man and that his administration has been largely void of widespread corruption. This will help him from being portrayed as a true villain.
Oh, son, just wait until we have those hearings. Just wait until the documents are released and the insights gleaned and the broader picture of this era is painted. If this administration isn’t found to be the most corrupt ever, I will eat my laptop.