Sunday, June 29, 2008

Worst President Ever?

So, President Bush sometimes rejects criticism by saying that he prefers to leave evaluation of his administration to the judgment of history.

Bad mistake, it turns out. If early results are any indication, history will judge Bush far more harshly than his contemporaries do.

Four years ago, near the end of his first term, a survey of historians had 81% judging his presidency a failure, 11.6% of whom ranked him as the worst president ever. Only about one in five (19%) judged him a success.

A few months back the same historian repeated the poll of his fellows, and discovered that now over 98% consider Bush a failure, and less than 2% rank him a success. Within those whose judgment was critical of the current administration's place in history, 61% ranked him the worst president ever, and the remaining 35% placed him in the bottom ten (several apparently put him in second-worst place, right next to James Buchanan).

So, in as short a space as four years, the number of professional historians who judge our current president as the worst to ever hold that office has more than tripled: from 19% to 61%. Granted, it's an unscientific poll. And it's true that instant history can go badly off the rails. But it can also lay down judgments that stand the test of time: the portrayal of Hoover in Frederick Lewis Allen's excellent ONLY YESTERDAY [1931] as a well-meaning, energetic executive utterly incapable of handling the crisis history dealt him accords well with the consensus opinion ever since*, while Haynes Johnson's SLEEPWALKING THROUGH HISTORY [1991] remains a superb account of how Reagan pursued his agenda during his years in office (and the damage he inflicted on our country in the process).

However, in the end I am doubtful. It seems overwhelmingly likely that history will judge George W. Bush very harshly indeed. But the Worst Ever? I'm not even sure he's the worst in my lifetime. But then that's a subject for another post.

--John R.

* even sharper in its criticism, and even more strongly in line with subsequent judgements, is Allen's SINCE YESTERDAY [1939], since it covers the disastrous final year and a half of Hoover's term.