Judging Failure

Written on April 17, 2008 by Rolf Strom-Olsen in International Relations

Rolf Strom-Olsen


George Bush is limping into the final months of his presidency. Judging by his latest poll numbers, most people will be glad to see him go, with the possible exception of late-night comedians who doubtless fret over the impending loss of what has been rich pickings indeed. But with a mere 28% approval rating, Bush could well end up the least popular president in the history of modern polling.

While President Bush has always had his critics, the last two years have witnessed a solid consensus emerge that his presidency will go down in history as among the worst ever known in America’s more than 200 years of electing men – only men so far – to the office. And among the cognoscenti, there is a lively debate if, in fact, Bush might lay claim to the title “Worst Ever”. 

This is denounced by Bush supporters (all twelve of them) as the blinkered opinion of East Coast liberal egghead elitists. But a recent poll of so-called presidential historians (i.e. mostly university professors who have written books on any US president) adds credence and weight to the more general punditry. How, then, do historians actually arrive at this conclusion?

Ever since George Bush decided the time was propitious for an extended vacation as Hurricane Katrina loomed over the entire Gulf of Mexico even the most stringent apologists have had a hard time discerning much competence in the White House. But for historians, to judge Bush as actually the worst – not just bad, but the bottom of the bunch – is a daunting task. The historical landscape of American presidencies is littered with outstanding figures of corruption (Harding), incompetence (where even to begin… Pierce maybe?), tin-eared politicos (Jackson), fiscal mismanagers (Carter), outright crooks (Nixon). And then there’s that special category that belongs to James Buchanan alone: the hapless boob who presided over the dissolution of the American Union which led to Civil War. 

So to claw one’s way to the very, very bottom is a considerable feat. And yet, based on the results of the HNN survey, which is admittedly unscientific and value-laden, there is little disagreement that GW Bush has a serious shot at contention for the crown. Back in 2006, Sean Wilentz, a history professor at Princeton University, wrote an article in Rolling Stone Magazine that considered Bush’s presidency to be (quoting here his even-tempered opening statement) a “colossal historical disgrace.”   Eric Foner, another Princeton historian, echoed that sentiment in December 2006 in this Washington Post article, in which he considers the serious candidates for the title.

Writing in a recent issue of Harper’s Magazine, Scott Horton took appreciative note of the most recent poll and offered a judicious quotation which goes some way to explaining the depth of feeling against the incumbent’s record:

“No individual president can compare to the second Bush,” wrote one [historian]. “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.”


I think that last sentence is key. It is not just that Bush’s policies have proven to be disastrous; the enormous weight of the United States in global affairs has intensified and compounded the gross missteps and grievous miscalculations of his administration. This, I think, will remain critical for future historians who come to judge the Bush Presidency – and there will doubtless be many up to the task. Whatever factors are adduced to judge Bush’s presidency, the unparalleled importance that the US currently holds over global affairs will surely serve as the clinching factor. I agree to some degree with this counter-opinion insofar as the author argues that “historical” judgments about Bush, before Bush’s presidency is actually one for the history books, are of questionable value. But that said, Eric Foner makes a good point: it certainly appears as if Bush has managed to combine the “lapses of leadership, misguided policies and abuse of power of his failed predecessors” into a single juggernaut contender for the unenviable title of worst ever.

But perhaps the most compelling evidence should be this January, 2001 article from the Onion, a satirical newspaper. It is a sorry testament that the satire of 2001 has become, almost unerringly, the unfortunate realities of 2008. 

George W. Bush assured the nation in a televised address Tuesday that "our long national nightmare of peace and prosperity is finally over." Bush swore to do "everything in [his] power" to undo the damage wrought by Clinton’s two terms in office, including selling off the national parks to developers, going into massive debt to develop expensive and impractical weapons technologies, and passing sweeping budget cuts that drive the mentally ill out of hospitals and onto the street.

During the 40-minute speech, Bush also promised to bring an end to the severe war drought that plagued the nation under Clinton, assuring citizens that the U.S. will engage in at least one Gulf War-level armed conflict in the next four years.

"You better believe we’re going to mix it up with somebody at some point during my administration," said Bush, who plans a 250 percent boost in military spending. "Unlike my predecessor, I am fully committed to putting soldiers in battle situations. Otherwise, what is the point of even having a military?"

On the economic side, Bush vowed to bring back economic stagnation by implementing substantial tax cuts, which would lead to a recession, which would necessitate a tax hike, which would lead to a drop in consumer spending, which would lead to layoffs, which would deepen the recession even further.


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