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