Right on time, the opinion sections in the papers are filling with these columns: Donald Trump was the worst president in American history. Which reminds us of all the other presidents. We can't remember one president who wasn't called the worst.
But the pundits and political pros didn't even wait on Donald J. Trump to leave office before giving him the honor. In January 2019, former Senate majority leader Harry Reid said this about the president:
"I think he is without question the worst president we've ever had. . . . We've had some bad ones, and there's not even a close second to him."
And this before the president could brag overmuch about his pandemic response.
We remember writing something back in 2010, when the rehabilitation of George W. Bush was underway. Academia was all in arms about declaring Dubya the worst president in the Union's history. It helps now and then to look back and remember the ways other presidents have been abused. And then ask each other: Can we wait a few years, maybe a few decades, before closing the books on a president's time in office?
The following was printed May 2, 2010:
WE GOT a kick out of all those knowledgeable people, even "experts," who back in 2007-08 were calling George W. Bush the worst president this country has ever had. Imagine historians--historians!--not giving themselves the perspective of time.
But there they were: According to historians interviewed by George Mason University, 61 percent said Dubya was the worst president in the history of United States of America. And that was in April of 2008, before his presidency had even ended.
Worse than Richard Nixon? He who gave us Watergate? And left so indelible a mark on the American consciousness that now every scandal, mini-scandal or just hubbub has to have the suffix "-gate" to make it official. A president who had to be pardoned by his successor? Worse than a president who would later admit he testified falsely under oath? Worse than James Buchanan, who just stood by while the Union crumbled on his watch?
Dubya worse than Jimmy Carter? He who gave us malaise, dimes that cost 50 cents, attack rabbits and the seige of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran that lasted till his own tenure in the White House ended?
Worse than Herbert Hoover, who was in office when the Great Depression hit and stayed? Worse than Martin Van Buren, who was in office when the Panic of 1837 began and ran on and on? Worse than Andrew Jackson, who destroyed a national bank but created the Trail of Tears?
The worst president ever? But there are so many to choose from.
Historians should know better. It takes years, decades even, to decide if a president's time in office was successful. Heck, a lot of folks are still debating Roosevelt. Both of 'em. Not to mention Adams, the first one, and Jefferson, the only one.
THE FIRST time we saw the joke card was about a year ago. A picture arrived in the email of smilin' George W. Bush waving at the camera. The caption below the photo: "Miss me yet?"
No, not really, with all due respect, which wasn't much at the time. But that was before bail-outs-gate and terror-trials-gate. Before another president decided his State of the Union message would give him the perfect opportunity to bawl out the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court (since they could scarcely talk back), before Obamacare and cap-and-trade, before Government Motors, the Louisiana Purchase, the Nebraska Kickback and before Joe Biden's never-
The current president's approval rating is now hovering around 45 percent--way above George W. Bush's or Harry Truman's when they left office, but still down some 20 points from when Barack Obama came into office riding a wave of euphoria.
The reason Barack Obama's popularity has fallen isn't just a matter of style. He's tried to shove a center-right country to the left. Or as Charles Krauthammer noted, Americans like to play this game between the 40-yard lines. And Barack Obama wants to play in the red zone.
It's enough to make some folks nostalgic for the Bush Years. Okay, maybe only a Bush Month.
Also helping Dubya's case: Iraq is looking better these days. A Jeffersonian democracy it ain't and may never be, but even Joe Biden says Iraq could prove an American success story. And he was ready to give up on the place and divide it into three separate countries only a few years ago. Isn't it time for Obama-Biden to say the Surge was a success? Or past time. If only Afghanistan were going so well just now.
If his critics complained about George Bush's budget deficits and national debt, they look like the epitome of fiscal responsibility compared to the national debt the current occupant of the White House is running up. The debt was closing in on $10 trillion at the end of George Bush's term--while the nation was fighting two wars and a heckuva recession. Now even President Obama's projections indicate the debt will grow to $16.3 trillion by the end of 2012.
Sixteen-point-three trillion. We can't remember how many zeroes that is.
Nor does it hurt his rehabilitation in the national mind that George W. Bush is laying low. And generally acting like a former president instead of a kibitzer. That's Dick Cheney's style, what he has of it. (Vice presidents have always been the ones assigned the ax jobs. See Spiro Agnew.)
The former Veep is endorsing candidates, telling talk-show types that directing a vulgarity at a senator back in 2004 (Joe Biden-style) was the bee's knees, and that the current president is weak on national security. Where is that undisclosed location when the country needs Dick Cheney to stay there?
A POLITICAL scientist at Carleton College in Minnesota, Steven Schier, says the second-guessers might do well to give George W. Bush a rest--for a generation or so. "You can't begin to really assess a presidency with any sort of objectivity until they've been out of office for years," Professor Schier told McClatchy News. "It will be 30 years before we can accurately assess the Bush presidency."
The man has a point. Perspective is not some instant product any more than tradition is. Even 30 years later, it's not entirely clear how successful Ronald Reagan was. Although we're starting to get a pretty good idea by now. Some of us think he'll wind up in the pantheon of presidents with Franklin Roosevelt. In large part because he had much the same buoyant personality.
And nothing improved Harry Truman's reputation in the White House like leaving it. He continues to grow in historic stature. Andrew Jackson's reputation, however, has been in freefall since the mid-19th century.
Right now, there's no telling what future historians will say about George W. Bush. The only safe bet is that he'll be compared to the presidents that follow him.
It occurs to us that 61 percent of those historians polled by George Mason University would have done better to tell those interviewers to call them in 2038.