Before tackling the main issue of today’s blog, I want to express my happiness that Rhode Island has legalized same-sex marriage. It is a great step forward for a state that has historically been relatively good on civil rights, and it also means that marriage equality exists in all six New England states. I also want to express my support for Jason Collins. Being the first active NBA player to come out as gay takes a lot of courage, and I wish him well. As for my main topic, George W. Bush’s presidential library has recently become open to the public. I thought it might be a good time to discuss where Bush falls in terms of presidential rankings. If we don’t count President Obama, since he’s still in office, Bush 43 and Jimmy Carter are probably the post-Nixon presidents that inspire the most division in terms of how good or bad people think they were. I mean, even Republicans usually don’t try to argue that Bill Clinton was the worst president ever or even one of the top five worst. There are some people who think that Bush 43 was a fairly good president, while others have said that he was the worst of all time. I think that both claims are excessive. But before I can give him a specific ranking, I feel the need to explain my criteria for selecting how bad a president was. The most important criteria in my view is what a president’s policies were regarding equal rights for all Americans regardless of immutable traits like race, gender, or sexual orientation. The reason for this is that equal rights is one of the most cut and dry issues, a basic moral matter. Hence, a president pursuing the wrong policies in this area is more egregious than pursuing the wrong policies in areas such as economics, which are actually fairly complicated. In order for a president to be among the top worst, their civil rights policy has to be unusually bad compared to other presidents around the same time. For example, Teddy Roosevelt’s racism, while inexcusable, was not unusual for the era, was less severe than Wilson’s or even Taft’s, and did not include rolling back substantial gains that minorities had made. In fact, Roosevelt did make a step for racial progress by inviting a black man, Booker T. Washington, to have dinner with him in the White House. This may not sound like much, and it was certainly symbolic rather than substantive, but it outraged Southern segregationists. North of the Mason-Dixon line, three-time Democratic Party presidential nominee, William Jennings Bryan, said that the Rough Rider had acted incorrectly by inviting Washington to dinner. There are, however, other criteria for determining the worst presidents. One would obviously be foreign policy. I’m borrowing a bit here from qualifications laid out by Michael Lind, but I think they were reasonable, so I’m going to use them. In order for a president to be ranked among the worst based largely on foreign policy, their wars need to be unnecessary, with lots of casualties. (The one exception I would make would be for presidents who engaged in wars to plunder Native American land, which were particularly abominable even when the number of casualties was low.) For example, the Civil War was very necessary, so Lincoln should actually get ranked as the best president largely for fighting and winning it. World War II was very difficult to avoid by the mid 1930s, and FDR should get credit for winning it and probably saving America from domination by the Axis Powers. On the flip side, President Obama’s war with Libya was not necessary, but it resulted in few casualties, so it shouldn’t impact his ranking too much. (I personally rank Barack Obama as the 8th best president, but that’s an issue for another blog.) Other areas, such as civil liberties and economics, also have to be taken into consideration. Were it not for his civil liberties policy, James Madison would probably deserve to be ranked as one of the top five worst presidents for owning slaves, allowing thugs like William Henry Harrison to steamroll over Native Americans, and helping to cause the War of 1812–which was a hypocritical, needless war far bloodier than our recent foray into Iraq. However, unlike presidents such as John Adams and Woodrow Wilson, Madison did not resort to censorship, although a large antiwar movement developed during his presidency. In fact, had Madison reacted to antiwar sentiment the same way as Wilson did, half of the Federalist Party would have probably ended up in prison. So, where does Bush rank? It is my contention that our forty-third president deserves to be considered the fifth worst. The chief reason for this is his proposed Federal Marriage Amendment. While Bill Clinton deserves a lot of criticism for DOMA (and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”), Bush’s amendment would have gone significantly farther by enacting an outright ban on gay marriage in all fifty states. This would have marked the first time since 1865 that discrimination had been a part of the U.S. Constitution. The progress that we have seen in the last few years on gay rights may have been largely prevented had Bush gotten his way. However, Bush failed to enact the Federal Marriage Amendment, preventing him from deserving the title of Worst President Ever. What about foreign policy? Even if Bush’s accusations about Saddam Hussein had been true, they would not have merited a war, since there was never any serious evidence that Hussein was planning to attack the U.S or that he had been involved in 9/11. The War in Afghanistan was also similarly unnecessary. However, while they were horrific, both wars had relatively low casualty rates compared to some of the wars initiated by other presidents on the Top 5 Worst list. Bush’s economic policy was quite bad. He left the country with a greatly increased national debt and helped turn a budget surplus into a deficit. Certainly, the economic crash was partly the fault of Clinton, and had he been allowed to run for two more terms and been serving as president in 2008, he would probably be a lot less popular today. Still, Bush also contributed to the crash by favoring policies such as low-to-no doc mortgages and the elimination of down payments, which helped promote bad bank loans. Hence, he is far from blameless in the 2008 Recession. A case could be made that, overspending and taking the country off the Gold Standard notwithstanding, Nixon actually had the best economic policy of any Republican president in the last fifty years, but I digress. And finally, we have civil liberties. Bush’s civil liberties violations, most significantly the Patriot Act, were bad but not unusual. Clinton never met a wiretap he didn’t like, Nixon used his power to spy on political enemies, FDR allowed over a hundred thousand people to be incarcerated because they happened to be of Japanese descent, and the list goes on and on. Bush never even attempted to intern all Americans of Arabic heritage, though Michelle Malkin probably regards this as a failing, and he did not engage in flagrant censorship nearly to the extent of some of his predecessors. So, without further adieu, who are the four presidents worse than Bush, and why do they warrant such an inglorious distinction?
4th worst: Andrew Johnson–fought tooth and nail to make sure that newly freed slaves remained second-class citizens.
3rd worst: Woodrow Wilson–supported the resegregation of branches of the government that had been integrated for decades; led the country into a needless war far bloodier than anything George W. Bush ever engaged in, costing us over a hundred thousand lives just to protect American economic interest; instituted conscription that forced young men into the military, including African Americans who had to put their lives on the line and then return home to be denied equal rights thanks partly to Wilson’s policies; committed some of the worst civil liberties violations in American History via the Sedition Act of 1918.
2nd worst: James K. Polk–provoked Mexico into a war to grab more territory, likely partly to gain more slave states. This war also promoted westward expansion that terrorized many Native Americans; allowed White House servants to be replaced with his personal slaves.
Worst ever: Andrew Jackson–signed the Indian Removal Act, leading to the Trail of Tears that uprooted tens of thousands of Native Americans and resulted in the deaths of a large number of them; defended slavery and was a slave master himself.