Thomas Fleming: Was George W. Bush the Worst President?

Roundup: Talking About History

[Thomas Fleming is a past president of the Society of American Historians. His most recent book, The Perils of Peace, America’s Struggle to Survive After Yorktown has just been published in paperback by Smithsonian.]

   There have been several polls of historians who have voted George W. Bush the worst president in American History.  This baffles me.  I’ve been writing and reading about presidents for a long time. What I know, and what I presume these gentleman know, doesn’t connect.

   Is Bush worse than John Adams?  When a shooting war at sea finally started between the United States and Revolutionary France in 1798, after five or six years of reciprocal snarls, what did Honest John do?  He wrote a letter to George Washington, offering to resign, so George  could resume the job. How is that for  presidential leadership? Meanwhile, John had kept Washington’s cabinet officers on the job, although he loathed them. He finally fired them in a fit of hysteria which made them wonder if he had lost his mind. Toward the end of his term, he stayed home for seven months either nursing Abigail or having a nervous breakdown, or both.  He ran the country by mail – the first, and thankfully the last president to attempt this feat.

     Is Bush worse than Adams’s successor, Thomas Jefferson, in his second term?  Rather than build a decent navy to reply to the British habit of boarding American ships on the high seas and kidnapping sailors into semi-slavery in their men of war, Jefferson declared an embargo on all trade with them and their chief enemy, France. The American economy came to a horrific standstill. Smuggling became New England’s chief industry. Someone described the embargo as “cutting a man’s throat to cure a nosebleed.”  Nonplused,  President Jefferson quit, without telling anyone but James Madison, his secretary of state, who was de facto acting president for the last year of Tom’s term.

    James Madison made presidential passivity into an art form.  He did nothing while Congress refused to renew the charter for the Bank of the United States in 1811, even though we were on the brink of war with the British. The next year, when the War of  1812,  began, the country was soon so bankrupt, the government could not even pay  the salaries of the clerks in Washington DC.  Thanks to a rare ability to select the worst generals in sight, “Little Jemmy,” as they called him in New England, watched while 4,500 British troops landed from their ships, marched to Washington DC and burned the White House and almost everything else worth torching.  You can’t do much  worse as a war leader than that performance.

      Worse than Woodrow Wilson, who  unilaterally invaded Mexico in his first term, simply because he did not approve of the man who was president” When World War I exploded, his pro-British sympathies made him a sitting duck for British propaganda, When the Irish-Americans objected violently to his London tilt, Wilson said that ethnics like these loudmouthed micks were “pouring poison into the veins of our national life.”  Meanwhile as a southern born pol to his shoelaces, he segregated almost all employees of  the federal government. Finally, he talked Congress into declaring war on Germany on the assumption that we would not have to send a single soldier to France. Before the war ended, we had 2,000,000 troops in Europe and in three months of fighting, lost a staggering 144,000 men.  Wilson then persuaded the Germans to negotiate a treaty based on his idealistic 14 points, which might have achieved a lasting peace , if he had insisted on  them. Instead, he signed on with the British and French revenge-seekers and forced the Germans to sign the most vindictive imaginable peace treaty, which virtually guaranteed World War II.

     Then there’s Warren G. Harding, whose dimwittedness was legendary in his own time. Elected by 7 million votes thanks to the electorate’s loathing for Wilson, Warren confessed to an amazing number of reporters that he was not up to the job. He told one newsman that he wanted to make the U.S. tariff higher than the Rocky Mountains to help Europe’s industries recover from World War I. The reporter could only stare in bewilderment. The president   had one of the biggest issues of the era exactly backward. When another reporter came back from a tour of Europe and offered to tell the president the appalling things he had seen on the war ravaged continent, the President said he had no interest in “Europe stuff” and told the dismayed scribe to talk to his chief speechwriter.  Warren had a special, concealed box at the Gayety Burlesque where he spent a lot of his afternoons and nights. In the leftover hours he concentrated on playing poker and trysting with a blonde named Nan Britton, reputedly in a closet off the Oval Office.  The jury is still out on whether this actually happened but there seems to be little doubt that he had conducted a torrid affair with Nan the year before he was elected.

     Worse than Franklin D. Roosevelt in his second term?  Elected by a massive majority, he decided he could get away with packing the Supreme Court with an indeterminate number of Democrats. Congress wasted a year wrangling  over the bill and ultimately rejected it. Few presidents have been so humiliatingly repudiated by a majority of their own party. Meanwhile, FDR’s intemperate remarks about greedy businessmen triggered a semi-replay of the  Great Depression in 1937. In the1938 midterm elections, the Republicans made huge gains.  Roosevelt was rescued from an exit even more humiliating than Jefferson’s by World War II, which he used as an excuse to run for a third term, thus fulfilling a dream he enunciated during World War I: “I would love to be a wartime President.’   

   Worse than Jimmy Carter,  who presided over the most horrendous stagflation in our history, without a clue about what to do about it? He frequently denounced Congress, where his own party had a solid majority, as dominated by special interests. As his poll numbers sank, Carter  had the temerity to lecture the citizens on their “crisis of spirit” and urged them to have more confidence in their government and country. His  numbers plummeted below 25 percent and were down to 22 percent when Ronald Reagan defeated him for a second term.

     Let us skip a comparison with Bill Clinton. He and Bush are too close together in time of service—a situation which makes comparisons inevitably rancorous.     

   I write all this not to denigrate these men. All of them deserve measureable admiration for achievements in their presidencies or after them. I am a strong admirer of John Adams for his political courage; he repeatedly warned us that a majority can be as tyrannical as a king or dictator. Thomas Jefferson displayed singular courage and judgment, putting aside his constitutional scruples to purchase  the Louisiana Territory in his first term. He doubled the size of the nation and put America on the road to superpower status. James Madison deserves even greater admiration  for the way he gave his remarkable wife, Dolley, a chance to create the role of First Lady and establish women as important players in our politics. Woodrow Wilson’s idealism was flawed but his vision of America’s role as a world power was profound. FDR masterful confrontation with the fear created by the Great Depression made his first term an unforgettable achievement. Jimmy Carter’s presidency was a disaster but his post presidential years as a voice of moral courage  is worthy of the highest praise.

     In this  light, however wavering, maybe it is time to suspend the rush to judgment on George Bush for ten or twenty years. I suspect we will decide his first term, with its decisive response to 9/11, deserves some praise and his second term succumbed to an awesome amount of bad luck, from his general’s disagreements about how to fight the war in Iraq to the Wall Street collapse of 2008. Many presidents run out of luck in their second terms but Mr. Bush’s record in this department will be hard to  match. Beyond the popularity polls there may be a dimension we should not forget in considering every president: sympathy.

Read entire article at A shorter version of this article appeared in the Wall Street Journal on Feb. 28, 2009

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More Comments:

Jack Schlotte - 11/10/2010

I can think of MANY valid reasons why Bush was the worst President EVER. What other President waged a "War on Women", a "War on Science", couldn't put together a descent sentence, mixed church and state issues unconstitutionally, denied the peer-reviewed science behind anthropogenic global warming and unconscionably profiteered from his phony war in Iraq? To the Europeans and all rational, clear-thinking Americans he was a joke. Whole books were filled with "Bushisms" pointing out his complete lack of command of our language. He stated he wants small government, but wants it meddling in the most private of personal decisions, like a woman's right to choose, the federal government intervention in Terry Schiavo's right to die case and countless other areas of private life. Bush blocked all reasonable scientific means to enable stem cell research to progress. Europe left us in the dust. That to me was just one of many impeachable offenses. There was a massive popular effort to get him impeached through websites like ImpeachBush.com and others. They morphed into IndictBush.com after he miraculously was able to avoid the issue.
Of course there is his whole horrid administration at fault also. Cheney and Haliburton, Karl Rove defying a Congressional subpoena, still not honored to this day, The Abu Ghraib scandal and torture issues, the Abramoff scandal, Bush's censoring of scientific reports that didn't agree with his warped views, later admitted to be wrong and so much more! Bush personally, and his cronies and cohorts were undoubtedly the worst "clan" to ever inhabit Washington D.C. Gas priced TRIPLED during his administration, he left the economy in a downward death spiral, unemployment climbed, foreclosures peaked and he directly hurt America in the extreme. I know I'm leaving out a lot, but this is more than enough to make my point. Oh, did I forget that Bush thought it was OK to imprison foreign nationals AND American citizens without judicial process and may hold them incommunicado? Fortunately, that "little" Constitutional oversight was corrected with the Hamdi v. Rumsfeld Supreme Court case in 2004. I'll have to end with one more... the unprecedented dismissal of U.S. Attorneys from the Department of Justice in 2006, which brought up several Constitutional violations and was "arbitrary", "fundamentally flawed", and "raised doubts about the integrity of Department's prosecution decisions. In September 2008, the Department of Justice Inspector General's investigation concluded that the dismissals were politically motivated and improper. There's too much more to include in this short comment... you'd need several books!

Gig Paul Stephens - 11/18/2009

This is one of the most piss pour arguments I think I have ever heard. You simply pulled out the miss haps of each administration previous to the Bush administration without any comparison what so ever. Of course each presidency had its mishaps it is hard not to when you’re running the world. But let’s be serious in our analysis. No president in history has ever created an illegal act, law, document that supersedes the Constitution and renders it a useless document. The Patriot Act is the new constitution, along with suspension of Habius Corpus there are significant intrusions on our basic civil rights. No president in history was ever elected by the Supreme Court after a very suspicious election that would be a cause for American intervention if it happened in any other country in the world. Remember Weapons of Mass Destruction which I knew was a lie from its conception. Amazing fact that we declared war on Iraq when it was Osama Bin Laden who attacted us. No time in American history has there been granted a no bid contract to a company formally ran by the current, or at the time, the current Vice President, I would call that conflict of interest. Remember the Teapot Dome scandal, Halliburton Contracts was a far worse crime. Never in the history or America have we condoned Torture, previous to the Bush Administration we would rise above it. Funny how we had the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression under the Bush Administration. Some people say you can't blame him, well that is Wrong. When there is an air of non-responsibility at the highest level of government, the rest of the criminals will follow suite. Nixon was a prince compared to this guy. Dispute what I say, I dare you.

paul schlimme - 6/26/2009

On our local forum George W is carrying 50% of the votes for worst President ever, and no votes for best.

The votes for best are 50% R and 50% D so you cant argue forum isnt balanced.


We need Knowledgable political bloggers.

To take polls: http://granor.net/polls

jeff curtin - 5/21/2009

Again, wow, unconvincing and mostly meaningless comparisons. To my thinking, the measure of the man is not a constant, character and action based comparison. Rather it is the impact he had on our nation and the world. Wilson's quips about the Irish or the passivity of Madison hardly impacted us and the world as Bush's incompetence and lies have.

Jeremy Alan Perron - 3/24/2009

I think you missed the point, he was on purpose pointing out their flaws in order to show that even our better presidents have had them. I am no George W. Bush and he will probably will go down as a horrible president but I do have the bias of the present.

Lorraine Paul - 3/3/2009

'peers'? That is such an old Joke!! LOL

But then I am not a gentleman.

Patrick Murray - 3/3/2009

Fleming has just demonstrated the historians play tricks on the dead. John Adams was rightfully proud that he prevented a general war with France. Madison was commander in chief during an unpopular war fought partly to stop the Royal Navy from terrorizing our ports and impressing our sailors, but Madison did not expand the executive's power to spy on American citizens or to vitiate both the Constitution and America's standing among the nations of the world.
The Germans cleaned up Berlin faster than the US government has cleaned up the Ninth Ward in New Orleans. George W. Bushed just looked the other way.

Bruce Boyden - 3/2/2009

That's an odd term to use to refer to historians generally.

Lorraine Paul - 3/2/2009

Sympathy??? For a war criminal?

George Bush, the man who stole a presidency and used its power to invade, murder, torture, lie, spy on citizens of his own country, and, at the end, felt no remorse for his misdeeds!

I am stunned that an academic who reached high office amongst his peers has put forward this 'argument' in defence of a man who will go down in infamy, not only in his own country, but throughout the world!

Michael Green - 3/2/2009

It may indeed be too soon to judge George W. Bush. But I do find it amazing that Mr. Fleming writes about the "decisive" response to 9/11 possibly improving Bush's standing in his first term but "his general's disagreements about how to fight the war in Iraq" marring his second. I'm trying to remember when the war in Iraq started. For some reason, it seems to have been in his first term. I'm also trying to remember when Bush caught Osama Bin Laden as part of a single-minded effort. Well?