“The Worst President in History?” is the title of a recent article about the presidency of George W. Bush by Princeton historian Sean Wilentz published in Rolling Stone. It’s a fine piece, which has deservedly made the rounds of the blogosphere. Therefore it is not to denigrate that article that I now suggest that the question mark in that title can be dropped.
Wilentz cites a poll conducted among more than 400 historians in early 2004. Already at that point, more than 80% of these historians regarded the Bush presidency as a failure. Now factor in all that has become known about this administration in the almost two-and-a-half years since that poll was taken: how more fully disclosed are the lies leading to the war in Iraq and the blunders that assured its disastrous consequences; how incompetent the administration has proved to be in the face of hurricane Katrina; how clear has become the picture of this administration’s disdain for the Constitution and the law, with its bypassing of the required judicial oversight in the issuing of warrants; how shamelessly they have sought to suppress scientific and economic facts, and so forth— a list that could be vastly expanded.
The worst presidency in history? Where’s the competition?
Could it be the sleazy administration of Ulysses S. Grant, or the likewise corrupt Harding administration, with its Teapot Dome Scandal?
No, not when you observe how the Bushite regime goes beyond such superficial corruption. Certainly, the sins of this administration include the conventional pigs-feeding-at-the-trough corruption –as illuminated by the expanding Abramoff scandals – but the corruption here goes much deeper. The moral corruption of this regime -with its apparent unwillingness to hold any value higher than its own advantage– goes beyond such parasitism to threaten the very life of the American body politic.
How about James Buchanan, the occupant of the White House immediately before the election of Abraham Lincoln and the outbreak of the Civil War?
Buchanan failed to offer the country the leadership it needed at a especially dangerous moment in American history. Surely, the carnage that followed in his wake underscores the gravity of Buchanan’s failure. But Buchanan inherited a sharply divided country. He did not, like our current president, actively create division for his own political self-aggrandizement.
Can the Nixon presidency offer any serious competition, with its dangerous abuses of power?
Hardly. As former Nixon counsel John Dean said in recent days, the abuses of power of this Bushite regime leave Nixon’s “in the dust.” The Nixon administration had plenty of mean-spirited paranoia and resentment. But Nixon did not have the same take-no-prisoners drive towards domination. Although he was a threat to the rule of law, Nixon didn’t seek to dismantle the system he abused, like these Bushites with their so-called “theories” of the Constitution that seek to rationalize unchecked presidential power.
Consider the systematic assault that this regime and their party loyalists have been conducting on the basic structures of our democracy:
** The use of “signing statements” and bogus “constitutional arguments” to usurp the constitutional powers of the other branches;
** The flagrant violation, under presidential orders, of duly passed laws such as the FISA act, not to mention of the 4th Amendment to the Constitution;
** The violation of duly-ratified treaties banning torture and of constitutional provisions for due process;
** The K street culture of big moneyed interests buying government, even further corrupted with the requirement that only Republican lobbyists be hired;
** The rigging of Congressional districts, and other thuggish abuses of power, orchestrated by Tom Delay and his syndicate;
** The institution of a voting process that practically asks for election-stealing;
** The practice of politics by character assassination;
** The degradation of our public discourse through the distortion and disregard of science, the “fixing” of intelligence, and the denigration of expertise, secretly-paid commentators, and administration-produced advertisements presented as real news;
** The pattern of lies by this presidency to Congress and to the American people about vital national issues, not least in the selling of an unnecessary war.
(Again, the list could be multiplied.)
In subverting our democracy, this Bushite regime is attacking the heart of America– what generations of Americans going off to war have been told we must fight to protect. This is what takes this presidency beyond other failed or corrupt or criminal administrations.
Not only does this administration embody the sins of all the past administrations –corruption, abuse of power, leading us along the path of destruction– but the crisis of this moment in American history is unique in this crucial respect: the problem is not that this administration is mismanaging a national crisis, it is that they themselves are the crisis.
Maybe a better president than poor Herbert Hoover, one of the presidents Wilentz considers, could have ameliorated the economic crisis stemming from the stock market crash of 1929. But the crisis was coming, independent of Hoover’s leadership, and the hard times suffered in other countries in the global economy do not suggest there was any painless way out for Americans, regardless of the quality of their presidential leadership.
Buchanan mismanaged the escalating American crisis over the issue of slavery. Maybe better leadership could have averted or deferred the outbreak of war, as previous compromises had done. But maybe not. The compromises had already started to break down before Buchanan assumed the presidency.
But this crisis is different. Unlike those of 1861 or 1929 or 1941, the crisis of today is not because of anything that’s happened to our country (Even if the official story of 9/11 were accepted as true, there’s no reason why that trauma had to precipitate a lasting crisis in our national life). No, the reason for our present crisis is that we’re being ruled by a regime of lawbreaking, usurpatious, lying, power-lusting, and blundering thugs.
It’s not that we need better leadership in this crisis. The leadership is the crisis.
The worst presidency in history? We don’t need the question mark.
Andrew Bard Schmookler has recently launched his website, NoneSoBlind.org, devoted to understanding the roots of America’s present moral crisis and the means by which the urgent challenge of this dangerous moment can be met. Dr. Schmookler is also the author of such books as The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution (SUNY Press) and Debating the Good Society: A Quest to Bridge America’s Moral Divide (M.I.T. Press). He also conducts regular talk-radio conversations in both red and blue states. Email to: firstname.lastname@example.org