The Worst President in
One of America's leading historians assesses George W. Bush.
By Sean Wilentz
Friday 21 April 2006
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.
From time to time, after hours, I kick back with my colleagues at Princeton to argue idly about which president really was the worst of them all. For years, these perennial debates have largely focused on the same handful of chief executives whom national polls of historians, from across the ideological and political spectrum, routinely cite as the bottom of the presidential barrel. Was the lousiest James Buchanan, who, confronted with Southern secession in 1860, dithered to a degree that, as his most recent biographer has said, probably amounted to disloyalty - and who handed to his successor, Abraham Lincoln, a nation already torn asunder? Was it Lincoln's successor, Andrew Johnson, who actively sided with former Confederates and undermined Reconstruction? What about the amiably incompetent Warren G. Harding, whose administration was fabulously corrupt? Or, though he has his defenders, Herbert Hoover, who tried some reforms but remained imprisoned in his own outmoded individualist ethic and collapsed under the weight of the stock-market crash of 1929 and the Depression's onset? The younger historians always put in a word for Richard M. Nixon, the only American president forced to resign from office.
Now, though, 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. One pro-Bush historian said the survey revealed more about "the current crop of history professors" than about Bush or about Bush's eventual standing. But if historians were simply motivated by a strong collective liberal bias, they might be expected to call Bush the worst president since his father, or Ronald Reagan, or Nixon. Instead, more than half of those polled - and nearly three-fourths of those who gave Bush a negative rating - reached back before Nixon to find a president they considered as miserable as Bush. The presidents most commonly linked with Bush included Hoover, Andrew Johnson and Buchanan. Twelve percent of the historians polled - nearly as many as those who rated Bush a success - flatly called Bush the worst president in American history. And these figures were gathered before the debacles over Hurricane Katrina, Bush's role in the Valerie Plame leak affair and the deterioration of the situation in Iraq. Were the historians polled today, that figure would certainly be higher.
Published on Tuesday, April 18, 2006 by Vanity Fair
Senate Hearings on Bush, Now
by Carl Bernstein
Worse than Watergate? High crimes and misdemeanors justifying the impeachment of George W. Bush, as increasing numbers of Democrats in Washington hope, and, sotto voce, increasing numbers of Republicans—including some of the president's top lieutenants—now fear? Leaders of both parties are acutely aware of the vehemence of anti-Bush sentiment in the country, expressed especially in the increasing number of Americans—nearing fifty percent in some polls—who say they would favor impeachment if the president were proved to have deliberately lied to justify going to war in Iraq.
John Dean, the Watergate conspirator who ultimately shattered the Watergate conspiracy, rendered his precipitous (or perhaps prescient) impeachment verdict on Bush two years ago in the affirmative, without so much as a question mark in choosing the title of his book Worse than Watergate. On March 31, some three decades after he testified at the seminal hearings of the Senate Watergate Committee, Dean reiterated his dark view of Bush's presidency in a congressional hearing that shed more noise than light, and more partisan rancor than genuine inquiry. The ostensible subject: whether Bush should be censured for unconstitutional conduct in ordering electronic surveillance of Americans without a warrant.
Raising the worse-than-Watergate question and demanding unequivocally that Congress seek to answer it is, in fact, overdue and more than justified by ample evidence stacked up from Baghdad back to New Orleans and, of increasing relevance, inside a special prosecutor's office in downtown Washington.
In terms of imminent, meaningful action by the Congress, however, the question of whether the president should be impeached (or, less severely, censured) remains premature. More important, it is essential that the Senate vote—hopefully before the November elections, and with overwhelming support from both parties—to undertake a full investigation of the conduct of the presidency of George W. Bush, along the lines of the Senate Watergate Committee's investigation during the presidency of Richard M. Nixon.
How much evidence is there to justify such action?
Certainly enough to form a consensus around a national imperative: to learn what this president and his vice president knew and when they knew it; to determine what the Bush administration has done under the guise of national security; and to find out who did what, whether legal or illegal, unconstitutional or merely under the wire, in ignorance or incompetence or with good reason, while the administration barricaded itself behind the most Draconian secrecy and disingenuous information policies of the modern presidential era.