Is George W. Bush really the worst President in our history? It’s easy to think so, what with the failure to prevent the 9/11 attacks, the bungling of the war in Afghanistan, the fraudulent conspiracy to go to war in Iraq, the prolonged disaster of the war in Iraq, and the utter failure to anticipate and counter the worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression. I mean, how could anyone do worse?
We have here the key elements of the worst presidencies: dishonesty and incompetence. Dishonesty is easily seen in the buildup to the Iraq War, as the President, Vice President, and key members of the administration systematically sold a story about weapons of mass destruction, and complicity in 9/11, that they knew was false. They had a project to remove Saddam Hussein, even before 9/11, and evidently thought that any manipulation of public opinion was justified in order to build popular support.
Incompetence is visible at multiple levels, from the stupid decision to invade and occupy Iraq with an inadequate force, to the failures of FEMA in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, to the faith-based affirmation of free-market policies even as the economy was showing signs of strangling on junk mortgages.
So, yes, W is a strong competitor in this historical race to the bottom. Who are the other leading laggards?
The prize for consequential dishonesty (as opposed to low-grade corruption) could go to James Buchanan, predecessor to Abraham Lincoln. Buchanan was a Northern Democrat who was elected with Southern slaveholder votes. He managed to be officially against slavery while doing everything he could to support it, to be opposed to secession while doing absolutely nothing to prevent it.
Then there was Rutherford Hayes, a Republican whose election in 1876 was secured by a deal with Southern Democrats that exchanged their votes in the Electoral College for an end to Reconstruction. This deal cleared the way for reassertion of white domination of black citizens in the South, a domination that ultimately took the form of legal segregation and de facto disfranchisement. It took more than a century (and still counting) to erase the effects of this corrupt bargain.
Both Buchanan and Hayes were egregiously dishonest. But when it comes to sheer incompetence they were eclipsed by Warren Harding, the Republican successor to Woodrow Wilson, who was elected on the promise of a “return to normalcy” (“normalcy” wasn’t even a word before Harding; he should get some credit for that!). Harding was not directly involved in the Teapot Dome corruption scandal, but several of his closest associates were, and it has been speculated that his premature death from a heart attack might have been related to finding out what his friends had done.
Ulysses Grant was perhaps the most competent pre-president who became an incompetent president. He was the Union’s most successful general, the conqueror of General Lee, but like Harding later, he presided over egregious, over-the-top corruption, without benefiting at all himself. He seems to have spent most of his eight years in office in a drunken haze, and died shortly thereafter.
Jimmy Carter was without doubt the most competent ex-president who was an incompetent president. After losing to Ronald Reagan because he couldn’t cope with the Iranian revolution that his own policies had helped to promote, he later became such a successful statesman that he won the Nobel Peace Prize.
So George W. Bush has some competition. Some have been as incompetent. Some have been as dishonest. But none have combined those two qualities at such a high level.
Bushie, you’re doing a heck of a job!
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