David Greenberg: At Least He's Not Nixon

Roundup: Talking About History

[David Greenberg teaches history and media studies at Rutgers University.]

In 1950, President Harry S. Truman was under fire for "losing" China to communist forces, engaging in deficit spending and seeking to expand unemployment insurance. Harold E. Stassen, a prominent Republican, blasted him as "the worst president ever to occupy the White House."

Four years later, under Dwight D. Eisenhower, job growth had slowed and wages were down. West Virginia Sen. Matthew M. Neely declared Ike "the worst president in United States history."

In 1973, as Richard M. Nixon foundered amid the worsening Watergate scandal, crippling stagflation and increasing social strife, labor leader George Meany asserted, "He will go down in history as one of our worst presidents."

Six years into Ronald Reagan's presidency, the Iran-contra scandal broke and his approval ratings fell into the 40s. Ted Sorensen, who was a speechwriter for John F. Kennedy, suggested that Reagan could well be remembered "as one of our worst presidents."

Considering these moments from history, how likely is it that George W. Bush, as many now assert, is our all-time worst president? Yes, many of us can easily tick off our own lists of Bush policies that we believe have done the United States significant harm. But any declarations that history will consign him to the bottom tier of presidents are premature. 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.

Comparisons of presidents across different eras are typically the stuff of parlor games, not serious historical study. But if anyone can be said to deserve the mantle of the worst, it's Nixon. Indeed, looking at his disastrous presidency may help put Bush's failures in perspective.

Like Bush, Nixon fancied himself a "wartime" president in the manner of Franklin D. Roosevelt and therefore entitled to deference in the face of a national emergency -- a view at odds with how most Americans see these controversial, far-off conflicts. And while the oft-cited analogies between the Vietnam and Iraq wars tend to be glib, each conflict has significantly determined its president's reputation. Like Nixon, Bush has heeded Henry Kissinger's advice not to withdraw from a quagmire, preferring to brand critics cowards or traitors. Like Nixon, Bush has also sought to conceal from the public the full scope of the U.S. commitment. Under blanket assertions of "national security" meant to end public debate, he has used Nixonian wiretapping to achieve his ends. These decisions will surely stain his legacy.

But can we conclude that Bush's war policy is worse than Nixon's? However toxic the fallout from Iraq, it's hard to imagine that it could greatly exceed the damage wrought by Vietnam, the wounds from which are still raw 30 years later, as its role in the 2004 presidential election showed. (On the other hand, Nixon can't be blamed for starting his war, whereas Bush initiated his -- albeit with substantial backing from Democrats.) Bush's view of power and his iron-fisted manner of governance also come from the Nixon playbook. Karl Rove, who headed the College Republicans during Watergate, sought to complete Nixon's mission of building a permanent Republican majority. In Nixonian fashion, the Bush-Rove strategy has been to use bullying to stifle opposition: demonizing the news media, discrediting policy experts, disdaining the separation of powers. Bush's theory of a "unitary" executive power is little more than a restatement of a Nixon utterance: "When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal."...

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