Saturday, January 17, 2009

Get a Grip People: Bush Is not the Worst President in U.S. History

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.

Recent, Related Posts:

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"


Anonymous said...

Ok - then maybe he's a close second. they are both terrible.

Christal said...

That's assuming most Americans even know Andrew Johnson was President of the United States. I've seen recent videos of people who don't know the differences between Obama and McCain. Should it surprise anyone that we ended up with Bush twice?

We live in a celebrity obsessed culture with the majority of the public believing whatever the media and celebrities feed to them. If it wasn't for the Iraq War, Bush might have been heralded by conservative reporters turned Obama supporters such as Andrew Sullivan as one of the best presidents in history. I think we can already guess the legacy the media will create for Obama before he's even sworn in.

Also, I sent you an email that was listed under your contact info on blogger. I think it's your address.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Christal: update - I got some pretty "angry" emails (not from you), saying that "Lyndon Johnson" is not as bad as Bush, that I am supporting Bush or that Andrew Johnson did not invade another country or murder people. So there you have it. Reasoned debate.

Anonymous said...

Hutchinson - I posted a clip from your essay on Democratic Underground and received a lot of hostile posts. A lot of people believe that believing other presidents are worse than Bush means that you support Bush. Anyway, thanks for the essay. I enjoyed reading it.

PS: They banned me. So much for liberal values.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...


Thanks for spreading the "love." For what it's is worth, I too was banned from that same blog during the Democratic primaries. I cannot remember exactly what happened, but I know I was contesting the impact that electing a Democrat would have on society. I believe I raised some of the same issued I discuss in the post on educational inequality in blue states.

Some sites just do not tolerate dissent. It's their perogative, but it seems a bit childish to me. At DISSENTING justice, we certainly welcome dissent -- hence the name.

Clare said...

One thing that I think puts Bush at the head of the class for Worst President Ever is what Diluilo said about there being no interest in policy, just in political gain.
More power and money to the powerful and moneyed interests by whatever means, legal or not, under the cover of whatever platitudes. This kind of poison gets right to the core of our democracy. That's a pretty fundamental "worst".

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Clare. Thanks for posting.

Bush is not the first president to place political gain above all else. Just think of Harding. On many levels, they all crave political power - that's what got them to the job, and that 's what will get them re-elected.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

PS: If Bush has no "policy," why all the flap over the "Bush Doctrine"?

FLRN said...

Darren I well know you are not a Bush supporter and I also understand that you are not in line to hand him the" First Place Worst President Ever Award" - From my point of view I see him somewhere in the middle.
Let's see what we remember from the last 8 years?
He was elected and took office in 2001 at a time when the US economy was strong and the market Bullish. He announced policy to stimulate talk about immigration, healthcare reform and shoring up Medicare, with a focus on national attention to Education. Americans were confident and rushing to secure mortgages (fixed, variable, balloon, margin, secure and unsecured, owner financed and on and on...) and there were more first time home buyers than ever before and more credit card debt per American than at any time in history. Credit card companies were passing out high interest rate credit card like candy from a Pez dispenser and American bought into sales slogans like "No money down" ~ "Pay later" ~ "Ninety days same as cash!" and "No payments for a year!" Eight months into his presidency as he was doing as he had promised to work on Education our nation was attacked and Americans across the country responded in horror, anger and disbelief and calling for a national response to an enemy we could not see in a fight we could not anticipate, opening the door for the next 7 year war on Terrorism. We essentially simultaneously invaded two foreign countries (Afghanistan and Iraq) both harboring and offering haven to Terrorist organizations and with unarguably hostile relations with the United States. I think it is prudent to point out when this began few stood and shout "Don't Do this" rather Americans for the first time in decades screamed "Do Something!" And four years later GWB was again elected with more than half of the popular vote. The last four years have been tough (I won't even go into Hugo, Jeanne, Frances, Ivan, Katrina and the other disasters that busted entire states) but there has been some good - Medicare Rx drug relief for elders, a national conversation on immigration, increased security as a nation, the NCLB education initiatives as well as bad - a war we cannot win, a recession we cannot slow and a national and person debit ration we cannot reduce. Can we lay every bit of this turmoil at the feet of our President I hardly think so - that would mean that American has relinquished free will and rationale thought as we plow towards Wal-Mart and our local malls oblivious to the economy and our personal bank accounts and Earning and loss statements. The American people took out mortgages they did not understand, and bought furniture and goods they could not afford in an effort to play "keeping up with the Jones' "
To make one man responsible for the economic mess that we have today is beyond naive and borders on silly. Every American that spent more than they made, accepted money they did not earn for a loss or disability they did not have, and perpetuated the Federal handout and state aid society that we have become shares some responsibility here -Republican, Democrat, Independent or non-voter. I do think you are correct it is too soon to judge and too sooner to clarify just how "bad" this president was during the last eight years. And while historians are writing the book I can only shudder at what they are going to say about the true picture of citizens' roles and responsibility for our situation. Isn't Obama saying we all need to share the work to recover....kind of makes you think just a little bit more about the big picture.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Brilliant FLRN! You actually wrote something I had been thinking -- but with a hell of a lot of eloquence. The only thing I would add is that Congress must be the worst in history too, because they generally passed everything he sought AND they only manage to override 5 (I think ) vetoes.

Aeneas said...

Oh, mine... You've just broken your 'hate Bush or you're a Repugnican moron' mirror! Seven years banishment for you! Ha!

Thank you for this very, very interesting and certainly eye opening (for them who don't want to be comfortably blind) analysis of the 'hate Bush' feeding frenzy and his legacy. Yes, legacy.

For the longest I refused, simply refused, to join the feeding frenzy and anti-Bush hysteria that has crept into every nook and cranny; some out of heart felt political feeling; some because, well...they lost in 2000; and most, unfortunately, out of the herd instinct which seems to prevail among the voters. (That is why your blog is so refreshing.)

To be quite open about it--please don't ban me!--I think history will tell otherwise than the prevailent opinion and (here it comes) I do not believe he was even close to being the worst president. Very conveniently every one (by everyone I mean the bashers) forgets the decisive and right decisions he made after 9/11 and that for the seven years following his presidency there was no attack on American soil. It's not for lack of trying. He did many other good things that no one choses to recognize. But, history is a different kind of judge.

I didn't like the results of the elections in 2000 and 2004 (not that I liked the candidate on the other side a lot better), but I have to admit that I felt a lot more confidence in the Bush administration coming in than I feel in the Obama administration right now. And I hope that I still have the freedom to say so. I did not have such concerns when speaking against Bush.

Again, thank you. A breath of fresh air once again.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Aeneas - no banning around here!

I disagree with Bush, say, "90% of the time." But when I see a frenzy of hatred, I usually get very uncomfortable, for a number of reasons.

First, there's the whole black and gay thing that makes me scared when people lose control of rational thinking and replace it with unbridled hatred.

Second, and more importantly, when liberals blame Bush for the mess the country is in, then they give many other people who are blameworthy a free pass. These people include Democrats in Congress, corporations, and American consumers. Blame can go around widely.

The issue for me is, how do we get out of this? Is it by bashing Republicans and continuing to engage in "party combat" (us versus them), or do we come together and think rationally about what needs to be done.

During the Bush administration, the president's desires established a party line, which no one could transgress. Now, I see that Democrats know how to do the same thing. If that was bad under Bush, I imagine it's just as bad under Democrats. Our society cannot be healthy if people cannot disagree -- even if they disagree with those in the same "family."

Sigmond said...

As a conservative, we no doubt disagree on many things. However, having stumbled upon your blog, I am pleasantly surprised to see a Progressive who is so able to view the world objectively and with such intelligent commentary and analysis..

Thanks for that. I was beginning to think all Progressives/liberals were wack jobs.

Anonymous said...

I am having so much fun reading your blog, and yes I am conservative in my opinions and values.

What is outstanding in the analyis, and FLRN was outstanding in her analysis, is that there are so many other factors to consider.

I can remember that night (my time) when two planes plunged into the World Trade Centre. If you remember a few years before that happened, there was another attempt on the World Trade Centre, one that failed. On that night I was attending a Scripture study class, and someone asked a very relevant question. My answer to that question (and I had the first attack on the WTC in mind) was to declare war. The next morning when I learned of the attack I was horrified. My sons saw it on the TV and they captured it on video.

I hate to say this, but American and for that matter western policy was in part to blame for that attack - not Bush's policies either. Most people would not agree with me for that particular analysis but keep in mind I said "in part to blame" because there are other factors that need consideration.

People claim that Bush overrode human rights with some of his decisions and vetoes. I am going to state that the opposite is true, because some of the biggest overriding of human rights relates to the rights of the unborn. Their rights have been overridden ever since the Roe vs. Wade decision. A lot of people will not agree with me on that issue either. Also, in Middle Eastern states there is a lot of overriding of human rights, especially the rights of the wife or daughter in the household. There is a continuing increase in the number of honour killings in Middle Eastern countries, as well as in Great Britain, Australia, Germany, USA etc. I do not see the people opposed to GWB getting upset about the way that women are being treated.

At the same time it is overriding the rights of the women in these same countries to try and push abortion and what is loosely termed as family planning upon them. There is absolutely no respect given to the religious values of these people when others are trying to force "family planning" upon the people. Instead of family planning clinics the women need a clean and safe environment to have their children. They also need others to champion their cause and to show how they are being treated - this includes the disgusting issue of female circumcision.

The USA and her allies took on two wars. One of those wars ended and in time the troops will be withdrawn. That one is Iraq where the country continues to be stabilized. It took time because of the influence of Al Qaeda. Yes Al Qaeda was in Iraq. There was also the influence of Iran to consider. The other war, which I think looks unwinnable is in Afghanistan. Yet if we withdrew our troops then Osama Bin Laden would have his victory - something we do not want at any cost.

I think that over time history will be kinder to GWB. By that time the nutroots will have forgotten all of their rather tiresome hatred. In time historians will look instead at the policies and yes they will look at the failed economic policies of GWB. This is where there should be criticism. Americans did not lose their human rights under GWB, most of that talk comes more from imagination than from truth.

As an outsider though, I have real problems with Barak Obama because he is so green in the political field - he lacks experience and he lacks fiscal responsibility. I see the way that he pushed the porkulus as a bully boy tactic. He talked about transparency but it was missing when this massive legislation was passed by Congress. It will cause big problems within the USA, perhaps even civil unrest (who knows).

I liked your assessment of Johnson. It was very thought provoking. It ties in with what I do know about the period in question.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Hey, anonymous - glad you're having fun. Thanks for posting. I agree that a lot of these issues involve multiple factors. WE should always resist arguments that portray things narrowly and in black and white terms.

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