Saturday, December 02, 2006

The Worst President in U.S. History

Eric Foner, a well-known historian and history professor at Columbia University, says it's George W. Bush:

Bush has taken this disdain for law even further [than Nixon]. He has sought to strip people accused of crimes of rights that date as far back as the Magna Carta in Anglo-American jurisprudence: trial by impartial jury, access to lawyers and knowledge of evidence against them. In dozens of statements when signing legislation, he has asserted the right to ignore the parts of laws with which he disagrees. His administration has adopted policies regarding the treatment of prisoners of war that have disgraced the nation and alienated virtually the entire world. Usually, during wartime, the Supreme Court has refrained from passing judgment on presidential actions related to national defense. The court's unprecedented rebukes of Bush's policies on detainees indicate how far the administration has strayed from the rule of law.

One other president bears comparison to Bush: James K. Polk. Some historians admire him, in part because he made their job easier by keeping a detailed diary during his administration, which spanned the years of the Mexican-American War. But Polk should be remembered primarily for launching that unprovoked attack on Mexico and seizing one-third of its territory for the United States.

Lincoln, then a member of Congress from Illinois, condemned Polk for misleading Congress and the public about the cause of the war -- an alleged Mexican incursion into the United States. Accepting the president's right to attack another country "whenever he shall deem it necessary," Lincoln observed, would make it impossible to "fix any limit" to his power to make war. Today, one wishes that the country had heeded Lincoln's warning.

Historians are loath to predict the future. It is impossible to say with certainty how Bush will be ranked in, say, 2050. But somehow, in his first six years in office he has managed to combine the lapses of leadership, misguided policies and abuse of power of his failed predecessors. I think there is no alternative but to rank him as the worst president in U.S. history.

Michael van der Galien at The Moderate Voice thinks Foner is exaggerating:

I do consider such conclusions to be premature. Foner himself points out that views change during the course of years or decades. Besides that, Bush still has two years left in which he can change some of his, umh, less good policies. Also, I cannot help but feel that Foner's views are, to say the least, ideologically tainted.

Bush 43 will undoubtedly never be considered to be the best President in U.S. history, but the worst might be exaggerating it a bit.

Maha disagrees, pointing out that Foner's professional credentials are rock solid:

Righties will fabricate myriad disses of Eric Foner, DeWitt Clinton professor of history at Columbia University, but in fact he's enormously respected among other historians. His book Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (Harper & Row, 1988) is THE most respected book ever on that complex period. (I was going to call him a "rock star" among American historians, but Tom at Corrente beat me to it.) He specializes in 19th-century history, meaning he is well acquainted with the bottom-of-the-barrel presidents like Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, and Andrew Johnson.

And Foner says George W. Bush is the worst president ever. He combines, Foner writes, the worst qualities of the worst presidents -- "the lapses of leadership, misguided policies and abuse of power of his failed predecessors."

And does van der Galien really believe Bush is going to "change" his "less good" policies? Like maybe restoring habeus corpus to political prisoners, stopping his warrantless surveillance of Americans, ending his support for torture, and backing off from usurping the powers of the other two branches of government?

I doubt he's really that naive.

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