Worst. President. Ever.

Politics, US Politics

Two items in today’s New York Times:

second-worst two-term president

U.S. Grant: upgraded to second-worst two-term president

The CBS News poll found that President Bush had tied the presidential record for a low approval rating — 22 percent, matching Harry S. Truman’s Gallup approval rating in 1952, when the country was mired in the Korean War and struggling with a stagnant economy.

And Timothy Egan:

In a survey of scholars done earlier this year, just two of 109 historians said the Bush presidency would be judged a success. A majority said he would be the worst president ever.

Well, at least with respect to the historical community, Bush has fulfilled his promise to be a “uniter, not a divider.” To appreciate the scale of his achievement, though, we really need to look at the competition.

James Buchanan: not looking so bad right now

If historians had been asked, in 2000, to name the worst president, most probably would have put James Buchanan at or near the top of the list. Buchanan had a truly impressive pre-presidential political career: Pennsylvania state legislature, U.S. House of Representatives, ambassador to Russia and Great Britain, senator, secretary of state. Unfortunately, Buchanan’s lengthy and distinguished career all led up to his being elected to the presidency in 1856, which was not an especially propitious moment in American history for anyone, especially for national politicians attempting to straddle the unbridgeable divide of the slavery issue. Buchanan, to be fair, handled the secession crisis no worse than any of his immediate predecessors might have done — it is hardly likely that Franklin Pierce or Millard Fillmore, for instance, would have been any less disastrous. But Buchanan had the singular misfortune to be the one in charge when the guns were fired on Ft. Sumter. In the game of historical musical chairs, someone had to be the one left standing when the music stopped.

Buchanan, however, only served one term in the White House. Bush has managed to achieve the rank of rank under-achiever over the course of eight years, which is a genuine accomplishment and puts him in a select company. Of the 43 men who have served as president, only twelve have served eight years (or more): Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Jackson, Grant, Cleveland, Wilson, F. Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Reagan, and Clinton. G.W. Bush will be the thirteenth.

Casey Stengel once remarked that it takes a pretty good pitcher to lose twenty games in a season. In the same manner, it takes a special kind of steady, resolute incompetence for a president to extend his own brand of failure over the span of eight years instead of compressing it into the typical four. Only one president even comes close to Bush’s record: Ulysses S. Grant. Grant had a rather Reaganesque approach to governance, a sort of hands-off style of executive leadership which allowed his underlings, the largest collection of boodlers and thieves ever assembled in the nation’s capital up to that point, to practice the most fantastic swindles and grafts known to the Republic. Much of this corruption was public knowledge when Grant ran for re-election in 1872. It was his good fortune, however, to run against Horace Greeley, who was, because of his death just 24 days after the election, even more manifestly unfit for the office of president than Grant. But for all of his faults, Grant, at least, didn’t get involved in a land war in Asia — the most famous of classic blunders. His sins, as the nuns would have told us, were venial, not mortal.

We don’t know what the voters of 1872 were thinking when they cast their ballots for someone who had already proven himself unqualified for any office of public trust above the rank of assistant wallet inspector. Perhaps they still respected his military service to the nation. Perhaps they disliked him slightly less than they disliked his opponent. Perhaps they thought he was the kind of guy they’d like to have a beer with. But if they thought that Grant would change, that he would exercise the kind of wise leadership that had been absent from his first term, they were sadly mistaken, for Grant’s second term was, if anything, worse than his first. The corruption went on unabated, and it included, for good measure, the Panic of 1873. Grant showed that, for a two-term president to be ranked among history’s worst, it takes not only gross incompetence at the top, but also a special kind of willful amnesia on the part of the electorate and a determined unwillingness on its part to acknowledge the facts. The same, of course, can be said of the 2004 election. In that respect, Karl Marx was wrong: history repeats itself, but in this case the first time was farce, the second was tragedy.

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