Monday, April 07, 2008

Worst President ... Again

The polling of historians to name "the worst president" has become a bi-weekly event, since it's become clear they'll pick George W. Bush every time. This one is even more dishonest than most, since it's not even a poll, though it calls itself one. The historian posted up the question on his blog, which showcases his contempt of Bush, and asked people who read his site -- who presumably find it worth reading -- to answer. Presto! "61% of Historians Rate the Bush Presidency Worst."

Read the quotes snipped from some of the votes, and you'll see MyDD and DKos without the cussing.

While he acknowledges some could take exception to his "poll" because "[t]he participants are self-selected," he touts the fact that "Among those who responded are several of the nation’s most respected historians, including Pulitzer and Bancroft Prize winners."

And we morlocks down here should just shut up and be told, because "Historians are in a better position than others to make judgments about how a current president’s policies and actions compare with those of his predecessors."

Christ, do they let anyone be a historian these days?

In an informal survey of 109 professional historians conducted over a three-week period through the History News Network, 98.2 percent assessed the presidency of Mr. Bush to be a failure while 1.8 percent classified it as a success.

My first question is, how do these people define "worst" or "failure?" They are not, after all, the same thing. The questioner doesn't attempt a definition, and none of the respondents he quotes seem to consider it worth trying. That strikes me as a likely sign this is just a call-and-response exercise among people who call themselves thinkers.

Historians, for instance, routinely rate James Buchanan the "worst" president. Which I can understand, if you look at the country a certain way. But was he a "failure?" That is, did he fail to do what he had sworn to do on his oath ("preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the Republic") and did he accomplish the policies he applied to governance?

On that basis, you'd have to rate him a success. Buchanan defended the federal government's property where he was able to do so, principally at Fort Sumter. He made clear that he considered it his duty to collect revenues in Southern ports. He stared down the South Carolinans time after time when they demanded its surrender. At one point, Buchanan wrote to Gov. Francis W. Pickens of South Carolina, "If South Carolina should attack any of these forts, she will then become the assailant in a war against the United States. It will not then be a question of coercing a State to remain in the Union, to which I am utterly opposed, ... but it will be a question of voluntarily precipitating a conflict of arms on her part ...."

He hardly had the resources to do more than hold the line: The entire U.S. Army numbered barely 16,000 men, mired in red tape, scattered across the Indian frontier. The Constitution did not allow the president to call out a huge American army and impose his will on any place that displeased him. That is a modern view. It was invented, in part, by Lincoln.

To dismiss Buchanan's adherence to the Constitution as a cover to allow treason, as some historians do, is to write off the foundation of the American republic and the genius of the Founders. It overlooks the seriousness with which Americans once regarded their balanced government and its institutions.

Any active step Buchanan might have taken would involve the incoming administration in inextricable complexities. Declare war on the Confederate States of America? Then that would acknowledge them as a sovereign power, and invoke international laws. Declare martial law? And throw Maryland and Virginia into turmoil, which would have made Lincoln's inauguration difficult, if not impossible? He had to sneak through Maryland after dark, as it was.

When Buchanan turned the government over to Lincoln, on March 4, 1861, only seven states had seceded. Virginia and Tennessee had confronted secession and rejected it at that time. Buchanan's policies let that happen. Together, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas represented half the future CSA's population and resources and held key military installations and armories. Thanks to Buchanan's touch, Lincoln still had a chance to hold them.

Even more important, Maryland, without which the North would have had to abandon Washington, D.C., remained in the Union. Secession sentiment ran strong there. Lincoln in his turn only managed to hold the state's loyalty by martial law.

By contrast, I'd classify John Quincy Adams as one of the best presidents ever. His vision of America was rooted in the Founders' vision, but reached for a truly great national future that carried all our virtues into the modern world. It was a tremendous plan for national self-improvement.

And it was a total failure. Because Adams was a compromise president chosen by political deal-making after a vicious knotted election, and all his chief rivals (and their lackeys) held important and powerful positions in the federal government, and they made it their business to ensure that his proposals were buried deeper than the score in a New York Times sports story. They wanted to make sure he was a one-and-done chief executive, so they could get their next shot in four years, not eight. Great president, failed president. It would be hard to discover a more complete failure in the record of U.S. administrations.

Sometimes "worst" and "failure" do go together. I'd combine them to describe John Tyler, who spent his entire administration trying to surmount his accidental presidency, and bribe various voter factions into a party built around himself that could elect him to a real term in the White House. The consequences for American history in the succeeding 20 years were dreadful. For some reason, however, historians routinely skip past him in their rush to dogpile on Bush and Buchanan.

But if you read the comments the historians sent in in response to the "poll" above, clearly they believe George W. Bush intended all along to overthrow Saddam, turn the country over to his corporate cronies, sweep aside troublesome constitutional rights, pack the Supreme Court with troglodytes, etc., etc. So ... shouldn't he be a "success" in their lights?

I think Ross Douthat puts it strongly, if essentially correctly:

All of which is to say that sixty-one percent of the historians' sample are ax-grinding fools whose nitwittery dishonors their profession. Judge Bush a failure by all means, but the fact that his legacy is only beginning its long unspooling ought to give anyone with even a glancing knowledge of history's cunning passages - let alone a so-called "professional" - pause before pronouncing his administration the worst in American history.

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