Bush: Gaining on James Buchanan for Last Place
by Robert S. McElvaine on Sep 20, 2004
The recent Republican National Convention presented George W. Bush’s presidency as a triumphant success. Most professional historians take a radically different view. A significant number of historians, in fact, rank the Bush presidency as the most disastrous in American history. They’re wrong.
An informal, unscientific survey of historians conducted at my suggestion by George Mason University’s History News Network finds that eight in ten historians responding rate the current presidency an overall failure. Of 415 academic historians who expressed a view of President Bush’s administration so far as a success or failure, 338 (81 percent) classified it as a failure and 77 (19 percent) as a success. Twelve percent of all the historians who responded rate the current presidency the worst in all of American history.
Such a low grade for the incumbent by historians may not be surprising. But the low rating is not just because most historians are hopelessly liberal. Today 70 percent of the historians who see the Bush presidency as a failure rate the current administration as worse than the two presidencies that liberals have most loved to hate, those of Nixon and Reagan.
The truth is that the current administration is not the most disastrous in our history. George W. Bush’s record on running up debt to burden our children is only the worst since Ronald Reagan. His record on government surveillance of citizens is only the worst since Richard Nixon. His record on foreign-military policy has gotten us into only our worst foreign mess since Lyndon Johnson sank us into Vietnam. His economic record is only the worst since Herbert Hoover. His record of tax favoritism for the rich is only the worst since Calvin Coolidge. His record of trampling on civil liberties is only the worst since Woodrow Wilson or perhaps John Adams.
There was, however, a presidency that was altogether worse than all or any of these: that of James Buchanan, who warmed the president’s chair while the Union disintegrated in his term (1857-61). The Civil War was the most calamitous event in our history, and neither George W. Bush nor any other president besides Buchanan has overseen a calamity on that scale.
Here’s why Bush’s presidency has been a disaster, although not quite the worst in our history. This president has:
• Taken, in the wake of the terrorist attacks three 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.
• Promoted the extraordinarily dangerous doctrine of preemptive war.
• Presided over the loss of more than a million American jobs, the worst record since Herbert Hoover.
• Misled the American public about weapons of mass destruction and alleged ties to Al-Qaida in Iraq and so led us into a war that has plainly and 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-Qaida are regrouping, once more increasing the threat to our people.
• Insulted and ridiculed other nations and international organizations and then found it necessary to go, hat in hand, to those nations and organizations begging for their assistance.
• Inherited an annual federal budget surplus of $230 billion and transformed it into a $400-plus billion deficit in less than three years. This negative turnaround of nearly three-quarters of a trillion dollars is totally without precedent in our history.
• Perhaps worst of all, wrapped himself in the flag and used the horrors of 9/11 to divert voters attention from the disasters that his policies have produced.
It must be admitted, though, that in terms of what it sought to do, the Bush presidency has been successful. His presidency has been remarkably successful, as one historian declared, in its pursuit of disastrous policies. Viewed from this perspective, President Bush’s own description in a Time interview (Sept. 6 issue) of his war in Iraq is the best assessment of his presidency as a whole: a catastrophic success. It has been all-too-successful in producing catastrophe.
Robert S. McElvaine, a writer for History News Service, is a professor of history at Millsaps College and the author of "The Great Depression."