Mr. McElvaine teaches history at Millsaps College. He is the author of EVE'S SEED: BIOLOGY, THE SEXES AND THE COURSE OF HISTORY (McGraw-Hill).
Editor's Note 12-5-05: This article was first published 19 months ago. It was referred to in an article by Richard Reeves on Dec. 2, attracting wide notice. Readers are encouraged to post fresh comments by clicking on the link at the bottom of this page. (FYI: To see the graphics displayed on this page in a larger format click here.)
Although his approval ratings have slipped somewhat in recent weeks, President George W. Bush still enjoys the overall support of nearly half of the American people. He does not, however, fare nearly so well among professional historians.
A recent informal, unscientific survey of historians conducted at my suggestion by George Mason University’s History News Network found that eight in ten historians responding rate the current presidency an overall failure.
Of 415 historians who expressed a view of President Bush’s administration to this point as a success or failure, 338 classified it as a failure and 77 as a success. (Moreover, it seems likely that at least eight of those who said it is a success were being sarcastic, since seven said Bush’s presidency is only the best since Clinton’s and one named Millard Fillmore.) Twelve percent of all the historians who responded rate the current presidency the worst in all of American history, not too far behind the 19 percent who see it at this point as an overall success.
Among the cautions that must be raised about the survey is just what “success” means. Some of the historians rightly pointed out that it would be hard to argue that the Bush presidency has not so far been a political success—or, for that matter that President Bush has not been remarkably successful in achieving his objectives in Congress. But those meanings of success are by no means incompatible with the assessment that the Bush presidency is a disaster. “His presidency has been remarkably successful,” one historian declared, “in its pursuit of disastrous policies.” “I think the Bush administration has been quite successful in achieving its political objectives,” another commented, “which makes it a disaster for us.”
Additionally, it is, of course, as one respondent rightly noted, “way too early to make a valid comparison (we need another 50 years).” And such an informal survey is plainly not scientifically reliable. Yet the results are so overwhelming and so different from the perceptions of the general public that an attempt to explain and assess their reactions merits our attention. It may be, as one pro-Bush historian said in his or her written response to the poll, “I suspect that this poll will tell us nothing about President Bush’s performance vis-à-vis his peer group, but may confirm what we already know about the current crop of history professors.” The liberal-left proclivities of much of the academic world are well documented, and some observers will dismiss the findings as the mere rantings of a disaffected professoriate. “If historians were the only voters,” another pro-Bush historian noted, “Mr. Gore would have carried 50 states.” It is plain that many liberal academics have the same visceral reaction against the second President Bush that many conservatives did against his immediate predecessor.
Yet it seems clear that a similar survey taken during the presidency of Bush’s father would not have yielded results nearly as condemnatory. And, for all the distaste liberal historians had for Ronald Reagan, relatively few would have rated his administration as worse than that of Richard Nixon. Yet today 57 percent of all the historians who participated in the survey (and 70 percent of those who see the Bush presidency as a failure) either name someone prior to Nixon or say that Bush’s presidency is the worst ever, meaning that they rate it as worse than the two presidencies in the past half century that liberals have most loved to hate, those of Nixon and Reagan. One who made the comparison with Nixon explicit wrote, “Indeed, Bush puts Nixon into a more favorable light. He has trashed the image and reputation of the United States throughout the world; he has offended many of our previously close allies; he has burdened future generations with incredible debt; he has created an unnecessary war to further his domestic political objectives; he has suborned the civil rights of our citizens; he has destroyed previous environmental efforts by government in favor of his coterie of exploiters; he has surrounded himself with a cabal ideological adventurers . . . .”
Why should the views of historians on the current president matter?
I do not share the view of another respondent that “until we have gained access to the archival record of this president, we [historians] are no better at evaluating it than any other voter.” Academic historians, no matter their ideological bias, have some expertise in assessing what makes for a successful or unsuccessful presidency; we have a long-term perspective in which to view the actions of a current chief executive. Accordingly, the depth of the negative assessment that so many historians make of George W. Bush is something of which the public should be aware. Their comments make clear that such historians would readily agree with conclusion that then-Democratic presidential hopeful Richard Gephardt pronounced a few months ago: the presidency of George W. Bush is “a miserable failure.”
The past presidencies most commonly linked with the current administration include all of those that are usually rated as the worst in the nation’s history: Nixon, Harding, Hoover, Buchanan, Coolidge, Andrew Johnson, Grant, and McKinley. The only president who appeared prominently on both the favorable and unfavorable lists was Ronald Reagan. Forty-seven historians said Bush is the best president since Reagan, while 38 said he is the worst since Reagan. Almost all of the historians who rate the Bush presidency a success are Reagan admirers. Indeed, no other president (leaving aside the presumably mostly tongue-in-cheek mentions of Clinton) was named by more than four of the historians who took a favorable view of the current presidency.
Ronald Reagan clearly has become the sort of polarizing figure that Franklin Roosevelt was for an earlier generation—or, perhaps a better way to understand the phenomenon is that Reagan has become the personification of the pole opposite to Roosevelt. That polarization is evident in historians’ evaluations of George W. Bush’s presidency. “If one believes Bush is a ‘good’ president (or great),” one poll respondent noted, he or she “would necessarily also believe Reagan to be a pretty good president.” They also tend to despise Roosevelt. “There is no indication,” one historian said of Bush, “that he has advisors who are closet communist traitors as FDR had. Based on his record to date, history is likely to judge him as one of America’s greatest presidents, in the tradition of Washington and Lincoln.”
The thought that anyone could rate the incumbent president with Washington and Lincoln is enough to induce apoplexy in a substantial majority of historians. Among the many offenses they enumerate in their indictment of Bush is that he is, as one of them put it, “well on his way to destroying the entire (and entirely successful) structures of international cooperation and regulated, humane capitalism and social welfare that have been built up since the early 1930s.” “Bush is now in a position,” Another historian said, “to ‘roll back the New Deal,’ guided by Tom DeLay.”
Several charges against the Bush administration arose repeatedly in the comments of historians who responded to the survey. Among them were: the doctrine of pre-emptive war, crony capitalism/being “completely in bed with certain corporate interests,” bankruptcy/fiscal irresponsibility, military adventurism, trampling of civil liberties, and anti-environmental policies.
The reasons stated by some of the historians for their choice of the presidency that they believe Bush’s to be the worst since are worth repeating. The following are representative examples for each of the presidents named most frequently:
REAGAN: “I think the presidency of George W. Bush has been generally a failure and I consider his presidency so far to have been the most disastrous since that of Ronald Reagan--because of the unconscionable military aggression and spending (especially the Iraq War), the damage done to the welfare of the poor while the corporate rich get richer, and the backwards religious fundamentalism permeating this administration. I strongly disliked and distrusted Reagan and think that George W. is even worse.”
NIXON: “Actually, I think [Bush’s] presidency may exceed the disaster that was Nixon. He has systematically lied to the American public about almost every policy that his administration promotes.” Bush uses “doublespeak” to “dress up policies that condone or aid attacks by polluters and exploiters of the environment . . . with names like the ‘Forest Restoration Act’ (which encourages the cutting down of forests).”
HOOVER: “I would say GW is our worst president since Herbert Hoover. He is moving to bankrupt the federal government on the eve of the retirement of the baby boom generation, and he has brought America’s reputation in the world to its lowest point in the entire history of the United States.”
COOLIDGE: “I think his presidency has been an unmitigated disaster for the environment, for international relations, for health care, and for working Americans. He’s on a par with Coolidge!”
HARDING: “Oil, money and politics again combine in ways not flattering to the integrity of the office. Both men also have a tendency to mangle the English language yet get their points across to ordinary Americans. [Yet] the comparison does Harding something of a disservice.”
McKINLEY: “Bush is perhaps the first president [since McKinley] to be entirely in the ‘hip pocket’ of big business, engage in major external conquest for reasons other than national security, AND be the puppet of his political handler. McKinley had Mark Hanna; Bush has Karl Rove. No wonder McKinley is Rove’s favorite historical president (precedent?).”
GRANT: “He ranks with U.S. Grant as the worst. His oil interests and Cheney’s corporate Haliburton contracts smack of the same corruption found under Grant.”
“While Grant did serve in the army (more than once), Bush went AWOL from the National Guard. That means that Grant is automatically more honest than Bush, since Grant did not send people into places that he himself consciously avoided. . . . Grant did not attempt to invade another country without a declaration of war; Bush thinks that his powers in this respect are unlimited.”
ANDREW JOHNSON: “I consider his presidency so far to have been the most disastrous since that of Andrew Johnson. It has been a sellout of fundamental democratic (and Republican) principles. There are many examples, but the most recent would be his successful efforts to insert provisions in spending bills which directly controvert measures voted down by both houses of Congress.”
BUCHANAN: “Buchanan can be said to have made the Civil War inevitable or to have made the war last longer by his pusillanimity or, possibly, treason.” “Buchanan allowed a war to evolve, but that war addressed a real set of national issues. Mr. Bush started a war . . . for what reason?”
EVER: The second most common response from historians, trailing only Nixon, was that the current presidency is the worst in American history. A few examples will serve to provide the flavor of such condemnations. “Although previous presidents have led the nation into ill-advised wars, no predecessor managed to turn America into an unprovoked aggressor. No predecessor so thoroughly managed to confirm the impressions of those who already hated America. No predecessor so effectively convinced such a wide range of world opinion that America is an imperialist threat to world peace. I don 't think that you can do much worse than that.”
“Bush is horrendous; there is no comparison with previous presidents, most of whom have been bad.”
“He is blatantly a puppet for corporate interests, who care only about their own greed and have no sense of civic responsibility or community service. He lies, constantly and often, seemingly without control, and he lied about his invasion into a sovereign country, again for corporate interests; many people have died and been maimed, and that has been lied about too. He grandstands and mugs in a shameful manner, befitting a snake oil salesman, not a statesman. He does not think, process, or speak well, and is emotionally immature due to, among other things, his lack of recovery from substance abuse. The term is "dry drunk". He is an abject embarrassment/pariah overseas; the rest of the world hates him . . . . . He is, by far, the most irresponsible, unethical, inexcusable occupant of our formerly highest office in the land that there has ever been.”
“George W. Bush's presidency is the pernicious enemy of American freedom, compassion, and community; of world peace; and of life itself as it has evolved for millennia on large sections of the planet. The worst president ever? Let history judge him.”
“This president is unique in his failures.”
And then there was this split ballot, comparing the George W. Bush presidencies failures in distinct areas. The George W. Bush presidency is the worst since:
“In terms of economic damage, Reagan.
In terms of imperialism, T Roosevelt.
In terms of dishonesty in government, Nixon.
In terms of affable incompetence, Harding.
In terms of corruption, Grant.
In terms of general lassitude and cluelessness, Coolidge.
In terms of personal dishonesty, Clinton.
In terms of religious arrogance, Wilson.”
My own answer to the question was based on astonishment that so many people still support a president who has:
- Presided over the loss of approximately three million American jobs in his first two-and-a-half years in office, the worst record since Herbert Hoover.
- Overseen an economy in which the stock market suffered its worst decline in the first two years of any administration since Hoover’s.
- Taken, in the wake of the terrorist attacks two years ago, the greatest worldwide outpouring of goodwill the United States has enjoyed at least since World War II and squandered it by insisting on pursuing a foolish go-it-almost-alone invasion of Iraq, thereby transforming almost universal support for the United States into worldwide condemnation. (One historian made this point particularly well: “After inadvertently gaining the sympathies of the world 's citizens when terrorists attacked New York and Washington, Bush has deliberately turned the country into the most hated in the world by a policy of breaking all major international agreements, declaring it our right to invade any country that we wish, proving that he’ll manipulate facts to justify anything he wishes to do, and bull-headedly charging into a quagmire.”)
- Misled (to use the most charitable word and interpretation) the American public about weapons of mass destruction and supposed ties to Al Qaeda in Iraq and so into a war that has plainly (and entirely predictably) made us less secure, caused a boom in the recruitment of terrorists, is killing American military personnel needlessly, and is threatening to suck up all our available military forces and be a bottomless pit for the money of American taxpayers for years to come.
- Failed to follow through in Afghanistan, where the Taliban and Al Qaeda are regrouping, once more increasing the threat to our people.
- Insulted and ridiculed other nations and international organizations and now has to go, hat in hand, to those nations and organizations begging for their assistance.
- Completely miscalculated or failed to plan for the personnel and monetary needs in Iraq after the war, so that he sought and obtained an $87 billion appropriation for Iraq, a sizable chunk of which is going, without competitive bidding to Haliburton, the company formerly headed by his vice president.
- Inherited an annual federal budget surplus of $230 billion and transformed it into a $500+ billion deficit in less than three years. This negative turnaround of three-quarters of a trillion dollars is totally without precedent in our history. The ballooning deficit for fiscal 2004 is rapidly approaching twice the dollar size of the previous record deficit, $290 billion, set in 1992, the last year of the administration of President Bush’s father and, at almost 5 percent of GDP, is closing in on the percentage record set by Ronald Reagan in 1986.
- Cut taxes three times, sharply reducing the burden on the rich, reclassified money obtained through stock ownership as more deserving than money earned through work. The idea that dividend income should not be taxed—what might accurately be termed the unearned income tax credit—can be stated succinctly: “If you had to work for your money, we’ll tax it; if you didn’t have to work for it, you can keep it all.”
- Severely curtailed the very American freedoms that our military people are supposed to be fighting to defend. (“The Patriot Act,” one of the historians noted, “is the worst since the Alien and Sedition Acts under John Adams.”)
- Called upon American armed service people, including Reserve forces, to sacrifice for ever-lengthening tours of duty in a hostile and dangerous environment while he rewards the rich at home with lower taxes and legislative giveaways and gives lucrative no-bid contracts to American corporations linked with the administration.
- Given an opportunity to begin to change the consumption-oriented values of the nation after September 11, 2001, when people were prepared to make a sacrifice for the common good, called instead of Americans to ‘sacrifice’ by going out and buying things.
- Proclaimed himself to be a conservative while maintaining that big government should be able to run roughshod over the Bill of Rights, and that the government must have all sorts of secrets from the people, but the people can be allowed no privacy from the government. (As one of the historians said, “this is not a conservative administration; it is a reckless and arrogant one, beholden to a mix of right-wing ideologues, neo-con fanatics, and social Darwinian elitists.”)
My assessment is that George W. Bush’s record on running up debt to burden our children is the worst since Ronald Reagan; his record on government surveillance of citizens is the worst since Richard Nixon; his record on foreign-military policy has gotten us into the worst foreign mess we’ve been in since Lyndon Johnson sank us into Vietnam; his economic record is the worst since Herbert Hoover; his record of tax favoritism for the rich is the worst since Calvin Coolidge; his record of trampling on civil liberties is the worst since Woodrow Wilson. How far back in our history would we need to go to find a presidency as disastrous for this country as that of George W. Bush has been thus far? My own vote went to the administration of James Buchanan, who warmed the president’s chair while the union disintegrated in 1860-61.
Who has been the biggest beneficiary of the horrible terrorism that struck our nation in September of 2001? The answer to that question should be obvious to anyone who considers where the popularity ratings and reelection prospects of a president with the record outlined above would be had he not been able to wrap himself in the flag, take advantage of the American people’s patriotism, and make himself synonymous with “the United States of America” for the past two years.
That abuse of the patriotism and trust of the American people is even worse than everything else this president has done and that fact alone might be sufficient to explain the depth of the hostility with which so many historians view George W. Bush. Contrary to the conservative stereotype of academics as anti-American, the reasons that many historians cited for seeing the Bush presidency as a disaster revolve around their perception that he is undermining traditional American practices and values. As one patriotic historian put it, “I think his presidency has been the worst disaster to hit the United States and is bringing our beloved country to financial, economic, and social disaster.”
Some voters may judge such assessments to be wrong, but they are assessments informed by historical knowledge and the electorate ought to have them available to take into consideration during this election year.