Richard Reeves: Is Bush the Worst President Ever?

Roundup: Historians' Take

President John F. Kennedy was considered a historian because of his book "Profiles in Courage," so he received periodic requests to rate the presidents, those lists that usually begin "1. Lincoln, 2. Washington ..."

But after he actually became president himself, he stopped filling them out.

"No one knows what it's like in this office," he said after being in the job. "Even with poor James Buchanan, you can't understand what he did and why without sitting in his place, looking at the papers that passed on his desk, knowing the people he talked with."

Poor James Buchanan, the 15th president, is generally considered the worst president in history. Ironically, the Pennsylvania Democrat, elected in 1856, was one of the most qualified of the 43 men who have served in the highest office. A lawyer, a self-made man, Buchanan served with some distinction in the House, served as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and secretary of state under President James K. Polk. He had a great deal to do with the United States becoming a continental nation -- "Manifest Destiny," war with Mexico, and all that. He was also ambassador to Great Britain and was offered a seat on the Supreme Court three separate times.

But he was a confused, indecisive president, who may have made the Civil War inevitable by trying to appease or negotiate with the South. His most recent biographer, Jean Clark, writing for the prestigious American Presidents Series, concluded this year that his actions probably constituted treason. It also did not help that his administration was as corrupt as any in history, and he was widely believed to be homosexual.

Whatever his sexual preferences, his real failures were in refusing to move after South Carolina announced secession from the Union and attacked Fort Sumter, and in supporting both the legality of the pro-slavery constitution of Kansas and the Supreme Court ruling in the Dred Scott class declaring that escaped slaves were not people but property.

He was the guy who in 1861 passed on the mess to the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln. Buchanan set the standard, a tough record to beat. But there are serious people who believe that George W. Bush will prove to do that, be worse than Buchanan. I have talked with three significant historians in the past few months who would not say it in public, but who are saying privately that Bush will be remembered as the worst of the presidents.

There are some numbers. The History News Network at George Mason University has just polled historians informally on the Bush record. Four hundred and fifteen, about a third of those contacted, answered -- maybe they were all crazed liberals -- making the project as unofficial as it was interesting. These were the results: 338 said they believed Bush was failing, while 77 said he was succeeding. Fifty said they thought he was the worst president ever. Worse than Buchanan....

[Editor's Note: The poll Mr. Reeves referred to was actually completed 18 months ago: Robert S. McElvaine: Historians vs. George W. Bush .]
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More Comments:

samuel d martin - 12/13/2005

President Bush will be recorded as one of the most consequential executives in American History by virtue of his boldness in dealing with the long standing problem of undemocratic governments in that area.This is a challenge all of his predecessors recently ignored or were predisposed to ignore.

Tony Luke - 12/10/2005

I don't place a lot of credence in HNN polls--largely because of the huge levels of bombast, invective, and just plain nuttiness I see in a lot of the articles and comments published here. For instance, this was really a very interesting article about President Buchanan and it left me wanting to know more about him and his presidency. Unfortunately, Bush-bashing is a big "seller" in academia these days and Mr. Reeves apparently felt the need to tie in President Bush in his final paragraph, as well as a create a sensational title for his article about President Buchanan. The final paragraph doesn't "fit" the rest of the article but it certainly appears from a previous poster's comments that the title has "sold."

To answer the question: George W. Bush won't rank in the pantheon of great presidents but he certainly won't be considered the worst president by "serious" historians.

Joan E Crow-Epps - 12/10/2005

Won't comment on Bush here, but would like to note that this column was listed on Yahoo News in the most e-mailed, most recommended and/or favorite column from 12/2 to 12/10/05, a record of 8 days, and that the last comment made on 12/10 was number 11,728.

This column based on a History News Network poll elicited discussion both from people who agreed and who disagreed with the poll results about Bush's competence. Some of the comments were barely literate, some were obscene, ad hominim attacks were rampant, some were just 'all liberals leave the country', 'all conservatives leave the country', but there were also a great many thoughtful and detailed arguments where posters listed facts and justified their opinions, with links to various news and/or commentary elsewhere on the web.

Many, many of the comments included the observation that they had never seen anything stay on the Yahoo News board so long, nor so many or such passionate comments.

Michael Green - 12/9/2005

I am hardly worthy of having been polled, but I'll be glad to put my name on the record. I'll also add that when Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., conducted a similar, albeit more limited poll about a decade ago, he listed all of the historians surveyed.

Now to the point. It probably is unwise to try to rate an incumbent in comparison with his predecessors--not for the reasons John F. Kennedy gave, but because people and events change during that incumbency. Abraham Lincoln looked better to a lot of people in 1865 than he did late in 1862, for example. So, we can wait until Bush has left office. Granted, we already know that he lied about Iraq's connection to September 11 so that he could oust Saddam Hussein--an offense for which a non-Republican Congress might have impeached and possibly convicted him--but an evaluation of him in comparison with others can wait.

John Allan Wilson - 12/6/2005

How about naming the historians who feel that Bush will rank so low. Is there some need to protect the source or the sources feelings?