BY ROBERT S McELVAINE
“As far as history goes and all of these quotes about people trying to guess what the history of the Bush administration is going to be, you know, I take great comfort in knowing that they don’t know what they are talking about, because history takes a long time for us to reach.”— George W. Bush, Fox News Sunday, Feb10, 2008
A Pew Research Center poll released last week found that the share of the American public that approves of President George W. Bush has dropped to a new low of 28 percent.
An unscientific poll of professional historians completed the same week produced results far worse for a president clinging to the hope that history will someday take a kinder view of his presidency than does contemporary public opinion.
In an informal survey of 109 professional historians conducted over a three-week period through the History News Network (HNN), 98.2 percent assessed the presidency of Mr. Bush to be a failure while 1.8 percent classified it as a success.
Asked to rank the presidency of George W. Bush in comparison to those of the other 41 American presidents, more than 61 percent of the historians concluded that the current presidency is the worst in the nation’s history. Another 35 percent of the historians surveyed rated the Bush presidency in the 31st to 41st category, while only four of the 109 respondents ranked the current presidency as even among the top two-thirds of American administrations.
At least two of those who ranked the current president in the 31-41 ranking made it clear that they placed him next-to-last, with only James Buchanan, in their view, being worse. “He is easily one of the 10-worst of all time and—if the magnitude of the challenges and opportunities matter—then probably in the bottom five, alongside Buchanan, Johnson, Fillmore, and Pierce,” wrote another historian.
The reason for the hesitancy some historians had in categorizing the Bush presidency as the worst ever, which led them to place it instead in the “nearly the worst” group, was well expressed by another historian who said, “It is a bit too early to judge whether Bush’s presidency is the worst ever, though it certainly has a shot to take the title. Without a doubt, it is among the worst.”
In a similar survey of historians I conducted for HNN four years ago, Mr. Bush had fared somewhat better, with 19 percent rating his presidency a success and 81 percent classifying it as a failure. More striking is the dramatic increase in the percentage of historians who rate the Bush presidency the worst ever. In 2004, only 11.6 percent of the respondents rated Bush’s presidency last. That conclusion is now reached by nearly six times as large a fraction of historians.
There are at least two obvious criticisms of such a survey. It is in no sense a scientific sample of historians. The participants are self-selected, although participation was open to all historians. Among those who responded are several of the nation’s most respected historians, including Pulitzer and Bancroft Prize winners.
The second criticism that is often raised of historians making such assessments of a current president is that it is far too early. We do not yet know how the things that Mr. Bush has done will work out in the future. As the only respondent who classified the current presidency among the ten best noted, “Any judgment of his ‘success’ or lack thereof is premature in that the ultimate effects of his policies are not yet known.” True enough. But this historian went on to make his current evaluation, giving Bush “high marks for courage in his willingness to attack intractable problems in the Near East and to touch the Social Security ‘Third Rail.’ ”
Historians are in a better position than others to make judgments about how a current president’s policies and actions compare with those of his predecessors. Those judgments are always subject to change in light of future developments. But that is no reason not to make them now.
The comments that many of the respondents included with their evaluations provide a clear sense of the reasons behind the overwhelming consensus that George W. Bush’s presidency is among the worst in American history.
“No individual president can compare to the second Bush,” wrote one. “Glib, contemptuous, ignorant, incurious, a dupe of anyone who humors his deluded belief in his heroic self, he has bankrupted the country with his disastrous war and his tax breaks for the rich, trampled on the Bill of Rights, appointed foxes in every henhouse, compounded the terrorist threat, turned a blind eye to torture and corruption and a looming ecological disaster, and squandered the rest of the world’s goodwill. In short, no other president’s faults have had so deleterious an effect on not only the country but the world at large.”
“With his unprovoked and disastrous war of aggression in Iraq and his monstrous deficits, Bush has set this country on a course that will take decades to correct,” said another historian. “When future historians look back to identify the moment at which the United States began to lose its position of world leadership, they will point—rightly—to the Bush presidency. Thanks to his policies, it is now easy to see America losing out to its competitors in any number of area: China is rapidly becoming the manufacturing powerhouse of the next century, India the high tech and services leader, and Europe the region with the best quality of life.”
One historian indicated that his reason for rating Bush as worst is that the current president combines traits of some of his failed predecessors: “the paranoia of Nixon, the ethics of Harding and the good sense of Herbert Hoover. . . . . God willing, this will go down as the nadir of American politics.” Another classified Bush as “an ideologue who got the nation into a totally unnecessary war, and has broken the Constitution more often than even Nixon. He is not a conservative, nor a Christian, just an immoral man . . . .” Still another remarked that Bush’s “denial of any personal responsibility can only be described as silly.”
“It would be difficult to identify a President who, facing major international and domestic crises, has failed in both as clearly as President Bush,” concluded one respondent. “His domestic policies,” another noted, “have had the cumulative effect of shoring up a semi-permanent aristocracy of capital that dwarfs the aristocracy of land against which the founding fathers rebelled; of encouraging a mindless retreat from science and rationalism; and of crippling the nation’s economic base.”
“George Bush has combined mediocrity with malevolent policies and has thus seriously damaged the welfare and standing of the United States,” wrote one of the historians, echoing the assessments of many of his professional colleagues. “Bush does only two things well,” said one of the most distinguished historians. “He knows how to make the very rich very much richer, and he has an amazing talent for f**king up everything else he even approaches. His administration has been the most reckless, dangerous, irresponsible, mendacious, arrogant, self-righteous, incompetent, and deeply corrupt one in all of American history.”
Four years ago I rated George W. Bush’s presidency as the second worst, a bit above that of James Buchanan. Now, however, like so many other professional historians, I see the administration of the second Bush as clearly the worst in our history. My reasons are similar to those cited by other historians: In the wake of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the United States enjoyed enormous support around the world. President Bush squandered that goodwill by taking the country into an unnecessary war of choice and misleading the American people to gain support for that war. And he failed utterly to have a plan to deal with Iraq after the invasion. He further undermined the international reputation of the United States by justifying torture.
Mr. Bush inherited a sizable budget surplus and a thriving economy. By pushing through huge tax cuts for the rich while increasing federal spending at a rapid rate, Bush transformed the surplus into a massive deficit. The tax cuts and other policies accelerated the concentration of wealth and income among the very richest Americans. These policies combined with unwavering opposition to necessary government regulations have produced the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Then there is the incredible shrinking dollar, the appointment of incompetent cronies, the totally inexcusable failure to react properly to the disaster of Hurricane Katrina, the blatant disregard for the Constitution—and on and on.
Like a majority of other historians who participated in this poll, my conclusion is that the preponderance of the evidence now indicates that, while this nation has had at least its share of failed presidencies, no previous presidency was as large a failure in so many areas as the current one.
Mr. McElvaine teaches history at Millsaps College. His latest book, Grand Theft Jesus: The Hijacking of Religion in America, has just been published by Crown.
See Related: WORLD POLITICS
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