April 19, 2006


The Worst President in History? (Sean Wilentz, 4/21/06, Rolling Stone)

George W. Bush's presidency appears headed for colossal historical disgrace. Barring a cataclysmic event on the order of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, after which the public might rally around the White House once again, there seems to be little the administration can do to avoid being ranked on the lowest tier of U.S. presidents. And that may be the best-case scenario. Many historians are now wondering whether Bush, in fact, will be remembered as the very worst president in all of American history. [...]

George W. 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.

The lopsided decision of historians should give everyone pause. Contrary to popular stereotypes, historians are generally a cautious bunch. We assess the past from widely divergent points of view and are deeply concerned about being viewed as fair and accurate by our colleagues. When we make historical judgments, we are acting not as voters or even pundits, but as scholars who must evaluate all the evidence, good, bad or indifferent. Separate surveys, conducted by those perceived as conservatives as well as liberals, show remarkable unanimity about who the best and worst presidents have been.

Historians do tend, as a group, to be far more liberal than the citizenry as a whole -- a fact the president's admirers have seized on to dismiss the poll results as transparently biased. [...]

How does any president's reputation sink so low? The reasons are best understood as the reverse of those that produce presidential greatness. In almost every survey of historians dating back to the 1940s, three presidents have emerged as supreme successes: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt. These were the men who guided the nation through what historians consider its greatest crises: the founding era after the ratification of the Constitution, the Civil War, and the Great Depression and Second World War. Presented with arduous, at times seemingly impossible circumstances, they rallied the nation, governed brilliantly and left the republic more secure than when they entered office.

Calamitous presidents, faced with enormous difficulties -- Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Hoover and now Bush -- have divided the nation, governed erratically and left the nation worse off. In each case, different factors contributed to the failure: disastrous domestic policies, foreign-policy blunders and military setbacks, executive misconduct, crises of credibility and public trust. Bush, however, is one of the rarities in presidential history: He has not only stumbled badly in every one of these key areas, he has also displayed a weakness common among the greatest presidential failures -- an unswerving adherence to a simplistic ideology that abjures deviation from dogma as heresy, thus preventing any pragmatic adjustment to changing realities.

That's an especially farcical line when you consider the unhinged nature of the American left, typified here by the usual lockstep consensus during any Republican administration that the current occupant of the office is uniquely odious. And speaking of "unswerving adherence to a simplistic ideology," try defending President Bush in a faculty lounge sometime and see where it gets you.

Posted by Matt Murphy at April 19, 2006 8:13 PM

George W. Bush will be remembered as a great president. Unlike these academics, who will be largely forgotten as soon as their lifetime-membership ACLU cards expire.

Posted by: Noel at April 19, 2006 8:49 PM

This guy must think that his fantasy league players actually play games for his team.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at April 19, 2006 8:59 PM


I seem to recall that the sociologist Paul Hollander once referenced a poll of Canadian academics in which a plurality called Ronald Reagan the most destructive figure of the twentieth century. Stand aside, Hitler and Mao.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at April 19, 2006 9:00 PM

I'm guessing -- and maybe OJ can point me to a link here somewhere -- that polls taken of historians during the Reagan administration showed very, very similar figures. As with Reagan, I'm guessing there will be a sizeable, if not overwhelming, re-estimation of Bush's place in history by academics once he's gone and no longer a political threat. Bush's domestic initiatives and the war on Islamism are monumental occurrences and even liberal historians can only ignore the evidence for so long before it catches up to them.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at April 19, 2006 9:01 PM

In the 1983 edition of the Book of Lists, Reagan and Thatcher polled as the "most feared and hated persons in history". Hitler was #5.

Posted by: Gideon at April 19, 2006 9:13 PM

Gideon - Just goes to show that the Left is better at fearing and hating its enemies than the Right is ours.

Posted by: pj at April 19, 2006 9:42 PM

I suppose the tone of this story means George W. Bush didn't get a nice Photoshop-enhanced pants buldge for his front cover picture on Rolling Stone, the way Bill Clinton and Al Gore did, because the magazine is such a serious chronicler of American politics.

Posted by: John at April 19, 2006 10:09 PM

Hitch tore this drivel apart on Hugh Hewitt today. Basically said that Clinton, Carter, Nixon, Kennedy, and Johnson were all worse than Bush just in the last half century.

Hitch for WH press sec!

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at April 19, 2006 11:03 PM

"an unswerving adherence to a simplistic ideology that abjures deviation from dogma as heresy, thus preventing any pragmatic adjustment to changing realities" depicts the historians perfectly.

Posted by: ic at April 19, 2006 11:44 PM

try defending President Bush in a faculty lounge sometime and see where it gets you.

Truer words were never spoken. Each year I attend functions where several ASU Faculty flutter around. Like clockwork I get the same stern warnings. Don't mention Bush.

Posted by: Tom Wall at April 19, 2006 11:49 PM

A brother-in-law teaches at seminary (and just started a new post in MA, of all places). I talk with him, of course, but I am always warned not to inflame his colleagues. My standard query is that the party line must be so extremely weak (combustible) if a poor old B.S. in engineering can upset the mighty advanced degrees so much.

Being around the hyper-liberal seminary faculty, I am always reminded of the C.S. Lewis line (speaking as a devil) - "Nowhere do we tempt more successfully than at the very foot of the altar".

Posted by: ratbert at April 20, 2006 12:11 AM

Let's look at the named examples: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, and Hoover.

Those pretty clearly demonstrate the absurd foolishness of trying to assess the historic impact of events while they're occuring.

The most recent Prez on that list is FDR, who died over sixty years ago.

I'd be happy to revisit the topic of Bush's legacy sixty years hence.

Further, the thought that Abraham Lincoln or Franklin D. Roosevelt "governed brilliantly" is laughable.
They governed successfully, but muddling through isn't brilliant.

In FDR's case particularly, if he had governed brilliantly, the Great Depression would have been over by '34, instead of '37.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 20, 2006 5:11 AM

"an unswerving adherence to a simplistic ideology that abjures deviation from dogma as heresy, thus preventing any pragmatic adjustment to changing realities" depicts the historians perfectly.

It also describes the Left . . . which is another way f saying the same thing.

Posted by: Mike Morley at April 20, 2006 6:28 AM

If FDR was an American patriot, the Soviets wouldn't have held Eastern Europe in slavery for fifty years and there wouldn't have been a cold war. He was worse than incompetent, he was complicit.

Posted by: erp at April 20, 2006 8:37 AM

I was fascinated by history since I was a child. But what has happened to the teaching of history in the academy is a Crime against the Humanities. And not just history; whether Environmental Studies, Journalism, Art History or Basket Weaving 101, the subject is "Bush Sucks".

It is an admission of failure as well. "We can't convince enough grown-ups...so let's indoctrinate the kids!"

By the way, a poll is the exact opposite of History. And a poll with 3 years left in a presidency? Please. Bush is controversial precisely because he is taking care of business, unlike his predecessor, President Footnote.

Posted by: Noel at April 20, 2006 9:19 AM

(sigh) Rolling ... Stone ?

'people who can't write interviewing people who can't talk for the benefit of people who can't read'
- Frank Zappa

Posted by: JonofAtlanta at April 20, 2006 10:02 AM

Mr. Wall;

Oh yes. When I ever I accompany She Who Is Perfect In All Ways to one of her faculty events, I get The Talk before hand.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at April 20, 2006 11:22 AM

Michael Herdegen:

Lincoln was great in the sense that, when it came to ending slavery, he knew exactly what he wanted to do and was brilliant in accomplishing it.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at April 20, 2006 12:42 PM

I'll bet they don't like James Knox Polk, either.

Posted by: Lou Gots at April 20, 2006 4:12 PM


Yeah, it's funny how it always works out that way:

Eisenhower: senile
Nixon: Beelzeebub
Ford: Chevy Chase
Reagan: May yet start WWIII!
Bush Sr.: Out-of-touch wimp
W.: Satan himself--yet stupid.

btw, If FDR is on the list, Reagan has to be. Why?

While the rest of the country tolerated an alliance with with Stalin in order to defeat Hitler, The Commies in in FDR's administration,if not FDR himself, sought war with Hitler in order to form an alliance with Stalin.

If Roosevelt is on the list, then Reagan must be because he finished FDR's job for him. If it wasn't FDR's job, then Roosevelt doesn't belong on the list. Ronald Reagan won WWII.

Posted by: Noel at April 20, 2006 8:14 PM

[QUOTE=JonofAtlanta](sigh) Rolling ... Stone ?

'people who can't write interviewing people who can't talk for the benefit of people who can't read'
- Frank Zappa
Posted by: JonofAtlanta at April 20, 2006 10:02 AM"[/QUOTE]

I'm assuming you got that quote from The Real Frank Zappa book. He was talking about music-review articles.

The FULL quote is:

"ROCK JOURNALISM is people who can't write interviewing people who can't talk for people who can't read"

That hardly applies to Sean Wilentz's piece.

If you think Frank Zappa wouldn't have anything but scorn for Bush, his policies, and all who travel with him, then you're exactly the kind of person that he wrote his more scathing songs about.

Note that Zappa described himself as a "practical conservative", and referred to Reagan as a "narcoleptic pinhead".

And yes...the majority of professors hold the politics of right-wing conservatism in low esteem.
I know some people would like to believe that's due to some sort of intellectual dishonesty
but did any of you ever consider that maybe people
with advanced levels of education tend to lean toward the left because they're....I don't know...educated?!

Posted by: Choya Davis at April 24, 2006 4:21 PM

I could respect you representatives of the right more if you could admit that Bush is a terrible president. Isn't it beyond debate now? He has done nothing positive in his entire time in office. I can't believe we have to put up with him for almost another 3 years.

And I can't believe some of the comments I'm reading. The world-wide Depression would have ended in '37 if FDR had been competent? FDR was "complicit" in allowing the Iron Curtain to be set up? (Never mind that the Soviet occupation was a fact at the time of Yalta, and Americans were finishing up one long war, with little desire to head into another immediately.)

That's besides the fact. We've had plenty of bad presidents. Some have been Dems, some Reps. OK? But just admit that Bush is a disaster. Really. Your efforts to make Bush sound like anything but what he is are pathetic.

Maybe next time around we'll get a real president.

Posted by: Fred Klein at April 25, 2006 1:53 PM