I have always found surveys that ask people to rank presidents a little silly. People who complete these surveys often fail to look beyond their own reality and consider figures from the past. Also, even when people look to the past, they usually employ contemporary standards to judge historical conduct. But many political positions that are suicidal today, were perfectly acceptable in the past (and vice versa). Not taking this into account can cloud our assessment of historical actors. Finally, in order to determine a president's place in history, we might have to wait until long after the person leaves office before we can accurately ascertain the longterm impact of the individual's term in office.
But. . .Now That I'm in the Game, Others Compete Strongly With Bush for the Bottom-Feeder Award
Having said that, I have been lured into the game of presidential rankings due to the numerous postings on liberal blogs which state uniformly, unequivocally, and without any nuance whatsoever that President Bush is the absolute worst president in the history of the United States. Liberal blogger Bernie Horn, at Blog for Our Future, has posted an essay, Bye Bye to the Worst President Ever, which has become popular on progressive blogs.
Horn concludes that Bush is the worst president because he, among other things, made the "worst foreign policy mistake in the history of this country," presided over an "unprecedented rejection of human rights," caused "unprecedented increases in inequality," engaged in a "culture of sleaze," blindly rejected science, and because he utterly refused "to protect the health, safety, and legal rights of Americans." Horn's analysis follows the pattern of many other "Bush-Is-the-Worst-Ever" essays because he fails to consider actions by other presidents that make them strong -- if not stronger -- candidates for the role of worst president.
One could rationally argue, for example, that the Vietnam War was an even greater foreign policy mistake than the Iraq War. Also, Andrew Jackson's callousness regarding the rights of Native Americans, which led to the brutal ejection of the Cherokee from Georgia, provides a much earlier instance of a president abusing a group's human rights. The Supreme Court held that federal law protected the Cherokee from Georgia's effort to remove the tribe in order to take possession of gold discovered on tribal land. In response, Jackson snidely declared: "John Marshall has made his decision. Now let him enforce it!"
Even presidents ranked among the "greatest" have made horrible decisions that rival Bush's for their inhumanity and illegality. FDR, for example, ordered the internment of Japanese Americans, and his administration filed legal briefs to the Supreme Court that contained fraudulent "evidence" of their involvement in espionage and sabotage in order to justify this gross deprivation of liberty.
Another Possibility: Andrew Johnson
Let me state for the record that I disagree with just about everything Bush has said or done. But I have not allowed that fact to unnerve me or to distort my reading of historical events. There are many other presidents who could top Bush on the "worst president" list. When I think about the subject, Andrew Johnson always emerges as my choice -- or at least as a strong contender.
As a Southerner and a Democrat, Johnson supported slavery, but he also strongly opposed secession. Johnson was the only Senator from the South who refused to leave Congress after the advent of the Confederacy. He also attempted to modify his position on slavery, stating that if free, blacks could become better workers. Newspapers in the South criticized Johnson as positioning himself for a vice presidential position. Lincoln ultimately chose him as a running mate (dropping Vice President Hannibal Hamlin, whom party advisors viewed as too progressive) during his re-election bid. Lincoln wanted to unite Republicans and Pro-War Democrats in order to strengthen his electability.
At his inauguration ceremony, a clearly drunken and red-faced Johnson addressed the Senate. Johnson delivered a rambling and incoherent speech, during which he frequently referred to himself as a "plebeian," who lacked knowledge of "parliamentary law" and procedure, but who would call upon learned individuals for help. Historical accounts of the moment provide great entertainment. Johnson, however, has an excuse for his drunkenness: he had consumed a few shots of whiskey to help him recover from an illness.
Johnson's Deplorable Presidential Decisions
But Johnson's pre-presidential behavior, as entertaining as it is, cannot qualify him as the worst president. Once Lincoln died and Johnson replaced him as president, however, Johnson quickly became the enemy of Reconstruction. He also established himself as a terrible leader, a staunch opponent of social and legal progress, and as a guardian of white supremacy. Here are some highlights (or "lowlights") from Johnson's presidency:
* Johnson explicitly encouraged the State of Mississippi to prevent blacks from voting. Negotiating the state's return to the Union, Johnson encouraged the governor to extend voting rights to those "persons of color" who could "read the Constitution . . . in English and write their names . . . [and] who own[ed] real estate valued at not less than two hundred and fifty dollars." Johnson said that if the state took this action, "the radicals, who are wild upon negro franchise, will be completely foiled in their attempt to keep the southern states from renewing their relations to the Union. . . ."
* During the war, General Sherman seized lands in coastal South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida and declared that they would be distributed to former slaves. Many freed slaves actually occupied and began utilizing the land for subsistence. Johnson, however, overruled the decision. Johnson resisted all efforts to distribute land to the former slaves.
* Johnson vetoed legislation permitting blacks in the District of Columbia to vote, arguing:
Where a people . . . speak . . . through the. . . ballot box, it must be carefully guarded against the control of those who are corrupt in principle and enemies of free institutions . . . [I]n admitting . . . a new class of voters not qualified for the exercise of the elective franchise we weaken our system of government instead of adding to its strength and durability.
* Johnson offered amnesty to a very broad class of individuals involved in the rebellion. Under the sweeping provision, Johnson even pardoned Alexander Stevens and Jefferson Davis, the Vice President and President of the Confederacy.
* During the war, Congress created the Freedmen's Bureau, an agency in the Department of the Army. The Freedmen's Bureau provided healthcare, shelter, schools, legal assistance, and protection from racial violence to the former slaves. After the war, Congress voted to extend its operations. Johnson vetoed the legislation -- twice.
* After the war ended, the Southern states enacted "Black Codes," or discriminatory laws designed to subjugate blacks. Some laws, for example, criminalized black unemployment. The penalty for these so-called "vagrancy" laws included a fine or term of servitude. Because blacks lacked legal representation or money to pay fines, they were sentenced to a term of bondage, often to the very individuals who "owned" them during slavery. The laws also forced black orphans (this was a huge problem, due to the war, post-war violence, and the sentencing of adult blacks to terms of servitude) to terms of bondage until the age of 18. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 to combat these practices and to secure the equal status of blacks under the law. Johnson vetoed the legislation.
* Radical Republicans in Congress spearheaded the passage of the Tenure of Office Act, which required Senate consent before the president could remove officeholders whose appointments were made with Senate consent. Congress (shamelessly) passed the law in order to prevent Johnson from firing Secretary of War Erwin Stanton -- who was a Radical Republican. The position was of great importance because the the South remained under military rule at the time. During a congressional recess, Johnson replaced Stanton with Ulysses S. Grant. When Congress reconvened, however, the Senate rejected Stanton's removal. Grant withdrew from the position, but Johnson again fired and replaced Stanton. The House moved to impeach Johnson because he violated the statute. Johnson escaped removal from office by one vote in the Senate. He was, however, the first president whom the House impeached.
Even after I adjust for historical prejudice, the evolution in the nation's political culture over time, and my own personal hatred of slavery and Jim Crow (for obvious reasons), I still believe Johnson's action's did greater harm to justice, humanity, and to national unity than Bush's policies. Either way, history will eventually find a place for Bush. And it might differ from the position to which liberals currently assign him.
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Hold Them Accountable Too: Many Democrats Supported Policies of the "Worst President" (Part I)
Separate and Unequal Public Schools: "Liberal" Blue States Have Worse Records Than "Dixie"