Worst President Ever?

Andrew Sullivan seems to think so. I have to admit, the thought has crossed my mind, too. Last night’s farewell address was really quite pathetic; a mixture of fantasy and outright distortion. (Jonathan Chait has a really wonderful take on … Read More

By / January 16, 2009

Andrew Sullivan seems to think so.

I have to admit, the thought has crossed my mind, too.

Last night’s farewell address was really quite pathetic; a mixture of fantasy and outright distortion. (Jonathan Chait has a really wonderful take on Bush’s comment, "I have followed my conscience and done what I thought was right." The answer to which, naturally, is "Yes, we can all agree that you’re not a paid enemy agent.") Slightly less pathetic was the presser he gave a few days ago in which James Fallows thought he was watching a Eugene O’Neill play. I get what Fallows is saying (although I think O’Neill is the wrong playwright). Bush looked as if he knew, deep down, that his presidency was a failure. And it was slightly poignant. But I think we really are way too close to Bush to properly examine his legacy. It will take a few years. And I have little doubt that history will rank his presidency in the bottom five — but number one? I’m not sure about that. Sullivan says that his greatest challenger is James Buchanan. A pretty good choice. But, actually, not the worst in my eyes. Buchanan has the dubious distinction of being president as — one-by-one — the southern states seceded from the union… And doing nothing about it! This was certainly unforgivable. But I’ve always thought it was sort of ridiculous to lay the fault of the Civil War on his doorstep. You have to wonder what would have happened had Buchanan immediately jumped into some sort of negotiation with the leaders of the Confederacy. Would there have been an end to slavery? Or would war have come later and at an even greater cost? Impossible to know — but my sense is that the Civil War was inevitable by the early-1850s. Warren Harding’s administration certainly gives W. a run for his money in terms of corruption (see Teapot Dome scandal) and malapropisms ("The only man, woman or child who wrote a simple declarative sentence with seven grammatical errors is dead," e.e. cummings noted upon his death.) But I find it difficult to get as mad at Harding as, say, Richard Nixon. Richard M. Nixon has enjoyed some measure of public forgiveness recent years — possibly because some of his policies were a little more liberal than they seemed at the time and some of his diplomatic moves had a measure of success. But I think this view is a mistake. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Nixon was a criminal. He (and his staff) committed numerous felonies while in office. For anyone who doubts me on this, pick up Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s classic, The Final Days or Rick Perlstein’s great book, Nixonland (which I was surprised not to see on too many "Ten Best" lists this year.) There was a great deal of winking at the Justice Department under Bush — and he was ruthless with his political rivals. But you don’t see break-ins to a rival’s psychiatrist office as you did with Daniel Ellsberg. You don’t see them planting evidence in an assassin’s apartment to make Democrats look like the party of the nuts, as they did with Arthur Bremer. The levels of fraud and illegal activity under Nixon are just too mind boggling to recount. Moreover, while Nixon might have opened up China, he is a miserable failure on Vietnam, Cambodia, South America, Greece and many other arenas. (See Christopher Hitchens’ screed against Henry Kissinger — which is just as much a screed against Nixon.) Some of the bloodiest fighting of the Vietnam war (a war he promised to end) came under Nixon. I do not feel charitably towards him. He’s certainly in the bottom three. The other one whom I really think is in contention is Herbert Hoover — the only one on the list I feel slightly bad putting on, because Hoover wasn’t necessarily a bad guy. (He might have even been considered a great man if he had never been president.) He cared deeply about humanitarian relief work — and he provided a tremendous amount of relief for a badly battered Belgium during World War I, as well as the rest of Europe afterwards. However, like Buchanan, Hoover was completely impotent during an unprecedented crisis. Unlike Buchanan, who only dithered for a few months as states seceded, Hoover dithered for three long, painful years before he got out of dodge. Not just dithered. He likely made the Great Depression even worse with ill-conceived ideas like the Smoot-Hawley Tariff. Letting the military loose on poor veterans (the "Bonus Army") was a national disgrace. And his determination not to deviate from "volunteerism" as a recovery plan for the poor was a disaster. Nearly 25 percent of the country was out of work by 1932. Many people don’t realize just how close the U.S. was nearing all out anarchy in March of 1933 when FDR was sworn in. Banks were closing at a shocking clip. Two million people were homeless. Many, many people believed that the U.S. would be shifting to some sort of socialist economy. Was that all Hoover’s fault? No. But he worsened a horrible crisis. So those are my nominees. I think Bush stands shoulder-to-shoulder with these men. War. Crisis. Corruption. Incompetence. Congratulations, Mr. President (for four more days, anyways). It’s been quite a ride.

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