Worst president ever?

Even the mainstream media feels comfortable with the question now.

Published December 4, 2006 2:41PM (EST)

Time was, talk of George W. Bush as the "worst president ever" was the sort of thing you got at certain liberal blogs and on the cover of Rolling Stone. But with Iraq spiraling deeper into chaos and Bush's approval ratings stuck in the 30s, even media as mainstream as the Washington Post can feel comfortable throwing around the WPE idea.

The paper asked five academics to rank Bush on the scale of American presidents. One gives W the W, another says he'll be "forever handcuffed to the bottom rungs of the presidential ladder," a third says he's the second-worst president of all time and a fourth says he's only the fifth worse. Maybe it's liberal media bias or maybe it's just the sad state of the president's performance now, but the best of the bunch for Bush is a "too soon to tell" assessment from a professor at the University of Massachusetts.

The highlights, such as they are:

Columbia professor Eric Foner: "Bush has taken [Nixon's] disdain for law even further. 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 ... I think there is no alternative but to rank him as the worst president in U.S. history."

Historian Douglas Brinkley: "Though Bush may be viewed as a laughingstock, he won't have the zero-integrity factors that have kept Nixon and Harding at the bottom in the presidential sweepstakes. Oddly, the president whom Bush most reminds me of is Herbert Hoover, whose name is synonymous with failure to respond to the Great Depression. When the stock market collapsed, Hoover, for ideological reasons, did too little. When 9/11 happened, Bush did too much, attacking the wrong country at the wrong time for the wrong reasons. He has joined Hoover as a case study on how not to be president."

Rutgers professor David Greenberg: "As the now-flourishing reputations of Truman, Eisenhower and Reagan attest, the antipathy a president elicits from his contemporaries usually fades over time. And as Nixon's still-dismal reputation also attests, in the contest for the dubious title of 'worst president,' Bush faces stiff competition ... Bush has two years left in his presidency and we don't know what they'll hold. They may be as dismal as the first six. Future investigations may bear out many people's worst fears about this administration's violations of civil liberties. And it's conceivable that the consequences of the invasion of Iraq may prove more destructive than those of Nixon's stubborn continuation of the Vietnam War. Should those things happen, Bush will be able to lay a claim to the mantle of U.S. history's worst president. For now, though, I'm sticking with Dick."

New America Foundation senior fellow Michael Lind:"It's unfair to claim that George W. Bush is the worst president of all time. He's merely the fifth worst ... Andrew Jackson's victory in the Battle of New Orleans (waged two weeks after the United States and Britain, unknown to Jackson, had signed a peace treaty) helped Americans pretend that the War of 1812 was something other than a total wipe-out. By contrast, George W. Bush has inadvertently destroyed only Baghdad, not Washington, and the costs of the Iraq war in blood and treasure are far less than those of Korea and Vietnam ... The fact that Bush followed the invasion of Afghanistan, which had sheltered al-Qaeda, with the toppling of Saddam Hussein, will puzzle historians for centuries. It is as though, after Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor, FDR had asked Congress to declare war on Argentina."

University of Massachusetts professor Vincent J. Cannato: "Much of Bush's legacy will rest on the future trajectory of the fight against terrorism, the nation's continued security and the evolving direction of the Middle East. Things may look grim today, but that doesn't ensure a grim future ... But history should at least teach us humility. Time will cool today's political passions. As years pass, more documents will be released, more insights gleaned and the broader picture of this era will be painted. Only then will we begin to see how George W. Bush fares in the pantheon of U.S. presidents."

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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