Sunday, December 04, 2005

Dumb and Dumber: Bush vs. Buchanan

[[P O L L S]] * It used to be that, when historians ranked the worst U.S. presidents in history, three names always popped up: James Buchanan, Warren G. Harding, and Richard M. Nixon. Others among America’s 43 chief executives are often described as “failures” (Franklin Pierce, Andrew Johnson, and Ulysses S. Grant, included). But those first are consistently relegated to the rancid bottom of the barrel.

Harding, of course, was a former Ohio newspaper publisher and Republican U.S. senator who achieved the presidency by being “the best of the second-raters,” a “dark horse” compromise candidate that his party could finally agree on during the presidential contest of 1920, after it had deadlocked over the two GOP frontrunners. Harding went on to be of some benefit (he rejected politically popular but expensive, post-World War I bonuses for soldiers and placed the executive branch on a firmer economic footing), but his single term is remembered mostly for the scandals--especially the Teapot Dome affair--that exploded after his death in 1923. Similarly, Republican Nixon deserves credit for establishing the Environmental Protection Agency, normalizing relations with China, and negotiating the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Yet those accomplishments are overshadowed by the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s bombing campaign against Cambodia in 1969. Finally, Buchanan seemed eminently qualified for the presidency when he assumed it in 1857, having previously served as a Democratic U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, minister to Great Britain, and secretary of state. However, during his single White House term, Buchanan allowed his partiality toward the South to prevent him from making necessary efforts to prevent slave-holding states from seceding from the Union. As historian Jean M. Baker wrote in her excellent 2004 Buchanan biography, that “favoritism ... bordered on disloyalty in an officer pledged to defend all the United States. He was that most dangerous of chief executives, a stubborn, mistaken ideologue whose principles held no room for compromise. ... In his betrayal of the national trust, Buchanan came closer to committing treason than any other president in American history.” (It was left to Buchanan’s successor, Abraham Lincoln, to clean up his mess.)

For that reason, if no others, Buchanan has generally been deemed to be the worst president the United States has ever had to endure. But now, according to historians, he has a strong competitor: George W. Bush.

According to an Associated Press report, the History News Network at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, recently polled historians from across the nation, asking them to assess the Bush presidency so far. (This follows a similar study from 2004.) Four hundred and fifteen responded, about a third of those to whom surveys were sent. Of those, 338 said the same thing as a plurality of Americans polled two months ago by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press: that Bush is failing as president. Only 77 others said he is succeeding in the office. Fifty of the historians who participated in this survey said that Bush is the worst president ever--even more dismal in the job than Buchanan. The same thing has frequently been said over the years by liberal essayists of one sort of another (see here, here, and here); but as the AP makes clear, the folks who participated in the History News Network poll included a number of self-described conservatives. To quote that story, reasons for handing Bush the Worst President Ever title were:
● He has taken the country into an unwinnable war and alienated friend and foe alike in the process;
● He is bankrupting the country with a combination of aggressive military spending and reduced taxation of the rich;
● He has deliberately and dangerously attacked separation of church and state;
● He has repeatedly “misled,” to use a kind word, the American people on affairs domestic and foreign;
● He has proved to be incompetent in affairs domestic (New Orleans) and foreign (Iraq and the battle against al-Qaida);
● He has sacrificed American employment (including the toleration of pension and benefit elimination) to increase overall productivity;
● He is ignorantly hostile to science and technological progress;
● He has tolerated or ignored one of the republic’s oldest problems,
corporate cheating in supplying the military in wartime.
In addition to those abuses, one might add Bush’s unwillingness to ban torture techniques, his shifting of greater and greater tax burdens onto the poor and middle class (and his efforts to undermine Social Security), his administration’s aggressive campaign to eliminate rivals, while ignoring ethical standards (which led to the CIA leak scandal), and his persistent siding with cronyism over competence when it comes to filling important government positions. But really, how many strikes against him does Dubya need before the American public determines he is unfit for his present job? The optimistic answer may be, no more. A new Time magazine poll finds that 60 percent of respondents want the next president of the United States to be completely different from George W. Bush. (Do you hear that, John McCain?) I’m sure that Americans back in 1860 felt much the same way, when they replaced President Buchanan with a lanky and little-known legislator from Springfield, Illinois.

READ MORE:W.’s Head in the Sand,” by Maureen Dowd (The New York Times); “Nowhere to Run,” by Brian Whitaker (The Guardian); “Torture: America Can’t Take It Anymore,” by Mark Follman (Salon); “U.S. on Defensive as Reports of ‘Secret Torture Flights’ Pile Up” (Agence France-Presse); “The Only Way Out of Iraq,” by Joe Conason (Salon); “What Would JFK Have Done?” by Theodore C. Sorenson and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (The New York Times); “Ghost of George W. Bush Stalks the Future” (The Carpetbagger Report); “The ‘Invitation Only’ Presidency of George W. Bush,” by Michael A. Genovese and Lori Cox Han (History News Network); “Decline in Support for War Worries GOP,” by Shailagh Murray (The Washington Post); “How Bush Created a Theocracy in Iraq,” by Juan Cole (Truthdig); “Father Knew Best,” by Paul C. Nagel (The New York Times).


Anonymous said...

what were james buchanan accomplishments in office

J. Kingston Pierce said...

If Buchanan can be said to have had “accomplishments” as president, they were in the diplomatic arena. He arranged a treaty with Britain that strengthened the Monroe Doctrine and won concessions from Central American nations to allow U.S. troop interventions, when they were deemed necessary to protect American interests. He was less successful in purchasing Cuba from the Spanish, which he had at one time hoped to do.