The Cult of the Presidency

Patrick Gibbons

George Bush will be remembered as one of America's best presidents … but not for any good reason.

A recent poll by Rasmussen Reports suggests that 41 percent of Americans believe that George W. Bush is the worst president in U.S. history. The liberal Nevada blogger at the Las Vegas Gleaner suggests this means 59 percent of Americans are morons. Other liberals are jumping for joy, believing they have finally been justified in their dislike of the president.  They're a bit hasty – history will judge Bush otherwise.

As history shows, Americans – and historians – prefer presidents of action. We seem to like presidents who pick fights, crush our enemies, and figure out all sorts of ways the government can solve our every problem.

Forget about presidents who reduce government spending, preside over booming economies, and don't start wars. Those presidents usually finish at the top of the list for worst presidents in U.S. history.

Bush is more akin to an early 20th century progressive like Teddy Roosevelt, minus the bravado. Bush currently finishes as an average president in the rankings, but probably would do better if his personality were more macho and less comical.

While the Gleaner and other liberals are mad as hornets about Bush's war and his violation of American constitutional and civil rights, Bush needs to violate a few more constitutional rights before he walks into history as one of America's greatest.

In the polls, top-ranked U.S. presidents include Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Andrew Jackson, Harry Truman, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. All of them either started a war or suspended constitutional protections and violated civil liberties.

The progressive Wilson administration passed laws that made it a crime to obstruct military recruiting efforts or to criticize the government. Through those laws, thousands were prosecuted, many were jailed and dozens of newspapers were shut down. He even had civilians organized into gangs to spy on and harass "unpatriotic" dissenters.

Franklin D. Roosevelt forcibly removed 110,000 Japanese Americans from their homes and sent them to internment camps. He created the National Recovery Administration, which even Mussolini labeled fascist, and he attempted to pack the Supreme Court when politics didn't go his way.  FDR earns very high marks, usually ranking in the top 3 presidents in history, just for attempting to fix America's economic problems during the Great Depression.  Never mind that his policies likely caused the depression to last three times longer than it otherwise would have.

Meanwhile, presidents regularly rounding out the bottom of the rankings include Warren G. Harding, Andrew Johnson, William Henry Harrison, James Buchanan, and Zachary Taylor.

Harding's major sin was unknowingly appointing a corrupt official to a cabinet position. Forget that he presided over the beginning of the roaring twenties, and restored civil rights by pardoning many Americans who were unjustly jailed for opposing World War I and criticizing Wilson's administration.

Harrison's presidential failure was to die just one month into office, while Taylor served just one year.

Johnson made the mistake of taking a conciliatory approach to the Confederates in an effort to heal the wounds of the Civil War. While President Buchanan is regarded as a failure for his inaction during South Carolina's secession, not that any action would have prevented a Civil War.

Meanwhile, historians look more favorably on presidents who at least try something, even if their plans make matters worse. For example, Lyndon B. Johnson ranks in the top 20, ahead of George W. Bush, despite his escalation of the U.S. presence in Vietnam (a war that left more than 60,000 Americans dead), and despite his dismal failure in the "War on Poverty," which spent billions of dollars only to exacerbate poverty and destroy the African-American family, as economist Thomas Sowell has put it.

The common characteristic of the so-called worst presidents is that they were men, good or bad, who believed the government was limited in its power by the Constitution. Many of the presidents listed as the best were the "great men of action" willing to bend the Constitution to their will to organize and engineer society, make war, or crush their political opposition.

So George W. Bush will never go down as America's worst president.  Americans – liberal and conservative – are just too in love with the idea of an imperial presidency.

For more information on this topic, check out the book Cult of the Presidency, by Gene Healy.