A question that seems to be on everybody's mind these days turns out to be: Is George Bush the worst President in American history?
But how do you judge? Is he the most morally disgusting? The worst mangler of the English language? Ever since the atom bomb was dropped, we've had a whole string of bozos who cannot pronounce the word "nuclear." How much should that count against them?
Is John Tyler, our tenth President, a candidate for worst President? Some people who have never heard of this guy have heard of the campaign slogan "Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too." Well, Tippecanoe (William Henry Harrison) lasted about a month in office before he died of a cold contracted while making his inaugural address, and the rest is non-history. Tyler is best remembered, if he is remembered at all, as the President whose entire Cabinet, save one, quit on him. Please do not confuse him with Zachary Taylor, the twelfth President, easily Tyler's equal in forgettability.
Is the most forgettable also the worst? Men like Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce and Benjamin Harrison (Tippecanoe's grandson) were more politically brain-dead than really bad. But not so with James Buchanan, No. 15, who was President from 1857 to 1861. Aside from being a dull, unimaginative, dray horse of a politician, he was the President whose cowardice in handling the South and slavery ended the remotest possibility that the United States would be spared the horrors of the Civil War.
The consequences of Buchanan's political poltroonery were long-lasting and dire, as contrasted with those of Warren Harding. Harding (No. 29) has won many Worst President contests because he had three or four truly stinky crooks in his administration to go along with an otherwise outstanding Cabinet. He was a slob with a drinking problem, and he was also afflicted with Bill Clinton's zipper disease. Since booze was illegal when he was President (1921-23), getting smashed in the White House made him a not-so-great role model — not that much of the country was paying attention since all the other adults in America were doing the same thing at the local speakeasy.
There is a great story about Harding in the closet making boom-boom with his girlfriend, and of his wife being restrained by the Secret Service guys from rushing in and exposing the President in the flagrantest of delictos. But worst President? Not so much.
Others proposed for the worst list include Herbert Hoover, James Madison, Ulysses Grant and Richard Nixon.
Hoover, Democratic propaganda to the contrary, did not cause the Great Depression nor was he indifferent to his people's sufferings. A brilliant, decent man, he was absolutely the unluckiest President.
Madison, the fourth President, justly called the Father of the Constitution, fits anyone's description of a great man, but he loused up the presidency by going to war against England in 1812 with no Army and not much more of a Navy. His foreign policies were so hated in New England that the young federal republic he had done so much to start almost blew apart. Worse was to come. Madison could do nothing when the Brits occupied Washington, D.C., and burned down the White House. But in the long run the consequences of his mistakes were minor, so he cannot have the "worst prexy" horse collar put around his neck.
Grant was too noble a man to be the worst anything. He had some crooks in his administration, but, like Harding, he had nothing to do with their corruption. On the plus side, he was the last President until Lyndon Johnson who would go to bat for black people.
As for Nixon, it's still too early to tell. Too many people still living hate him or love him. The decision on that strange, baggy-faced man belongs to Gen X and beyond.
Which brings us to Bush II. It's also too early to tell, but if first signs mean anything, he has got a lot to answer for. We know he is responsible for the death of a lot of people who never hurt him or us. We wonder if he has so disturbed the entire Middle East quadrant of the globe that years and years may pass while the people there and the people here suffer for what he has done. Will we get habeas corpus back? Will the thumb screw become standard operating procedure, or will it be returned to the Middle Ages whence George Bush found it?
One of the criteria for being worst is how much lasting damage the President did. Buchanan, for instance, did more than words can convey. With Bush II the reckoning is yet to be made.
By Nicholas von Hoffman
Reprinted with permission from the The Nation