Saturday, April 29, 2006

Who is the worst President?

Jay Cost at Real Clear Politics has interesting takedown of Sean Wilentz's Rolling Stone article on George Bush. Wilentz seems to believe that Bush is in fact the worst president.

As a prelude to his disquisition about how careful historians are when they think about ranking presidents, Wilentz writes this puzzling sentence:

From time to time, after hours, I kick back with my colleagues at Princeton to argue idly about which president really was the worst of them all.

So, which is it? Is it serious work by a historian using his professional expertise to answer a burning question? Or, is it just the compilation of the "idle" thoughts of a historian off the clock?

To answer these questions, we must ask another: what is it that separates the historian from the history lover, the political scientist from the politically attentive, the scholar from the buff? It is not the title of "professor," it is not the number of books from prestigious publishers, it is not the doctoral degree hanging on the wall. It is only this: the scholar uses a method of inquiry that the buff does not, and he operates in a community where adherence to that method is (or at least should be) of paramount importance. This, and this alone, is what should endow the social scientist, as opposed to the buff, with the status of "expert." The social scientist has spent time thinking not just about the question at hand, but also how to think about the question at hand.

This is why I was so aggrieved to read Wilentz's piece. He is a great historian who should know better than to devolve into the idle speculations of the history buff - but that is exactly what he does.

This becomes evident with a careful reading of his eighth paragraph. Wilentz gives three criteria for differentiating the good president from the bad. These are: (1) did they divide or unite the nation? (2) did they govern erratically or "brilliantly"? (3) did they leave the nation more or less secure? I shall take these as they are given - but I will say that I have serious objections to all three (particularly the second, which seems to present a false dichotomy and, with "brilliant," uses a word so hackneyed that it is almost bereft of meaning).

It would seem to me that using the above criteria Abraham Lincoln would not come off so well.

Great presidents have done some very unpopular things, in fact often that is what makes them great. The Jay Treaty was wildly unpopular, but it was necessary. George Washington did what was best for the country in the long term. But it was divisive in its time.

Let us imagine that Al Gore had been given the keys to the White House. The Court had gone his way. What then? Would Republicans have felt he belonged there? And when those planes hit those buildings on that September morning who would have been held responsible? After all the Democrats would not have had Bush to make movies about and cast blame on. No the buck would have stopped with Al Gore. Am I supposed to believe that would have made me more secure or the country more unified or for that matter that Al Gore was capable of brilliant rather than "erratic" rule?

I think it is too soon to know what kind of president George Bush has been, but I think we are forgetting that we the People bear some responsibility for our country as well.


Eric said...

IMHO, had Gore won the election (in whatever way) The Republicans would have been honked off, but I don't think they would have peddled this 'stolen election' meme that the Dems have for the past 6 years.

However, the reaction of the country to 9/11 would have been substantially different, I think. There would have been the initial 'rally round the flag', but given the continuation between the Clinton and Gore administration, I'm thinking that the public would have blamed both Gore and Clinton for the mess. I posit that a President Gore would have invaded AF, but not Iraq.

I think Gore would have been a one term president, being replaced by somebody like Guiliani.

Like I said, my opinion, and you're welcome to it.

Eric said...

Oh, and worst president is a toss up between Buchanan, Wilson and Carter.

cf said...

Jay Cost is the most brilliant political scientist in America. I learned more about polling from his horserace blog in 2004 than I ever learned elsewhere and he pegged the election results most accurately.Later I learned he was simply a grad student when he wrote it.

Since then, I ignore all pundits and polls except for Cost and Barone.

Rick Ballard said...

I didn't find this one of Cost's better efforts. Wilentz is using the shabby cloth of his position within academentia to pimp a polemic and while Cost notes deficiencies in his approach, I would argue that a simple dismissal would have been more appropriate. I enjoy Cost's writing on political science as much as Clarice does but this piece lacks the clarity that he achieves when writing within his own field.

As Terrye points out, doing the right thing doesn't mean that you're going to win popularity contests.

loner said...

A man can only take so much, but it's only because it involves another Roger thread he loves...

Jay Cost predicts...

"The election simply cannot be 51-49 or even 51-48." He mistakenly calls Minnesota and Wisconsin for Bush and doesn't make a call on Pennsylvania.

Another guy predicts (look through all the comments)...

He doesn't call the vote percentages, but he's consistantly argued for months that it'll be relatively close. He mistakenly calls nothing and doesn't make a call on Iowa, New Mexico, Ohio and Wisconsin.

The President gets 50.77% of the vote and 286 electoral votes. The Senator gets 48.31% of the vote and 252 electoral votes.

Worst President? Franklin Pierce?

terrye said...


62 million and a majority, however slim.

Maybe, or Grant.

One thing that surprised me on that election was how close Wisconsin was.

The best guy for predicting things like that is Barone.

He has such a memory for detail.

Rick Ballard said...


You have to set some sort of criteria to determine worst, don't you? I could make a case for worst on Hayes, F. Roosevelt and L. Johnson based on lasting damage done.

loner said...


Hence the question mark. My own personal favorite among the Presidents (based on nothing but my reading and watching through the years) is Coolidge. If I had a least favorite among the ones I know much about, I suppose it would be Wilson.

Had there not been a Watergate Scandal would anyone who has become President since Nixon have been President? I think I could reasonably argue that only Clinton would have been a possibility. Is that a positive or a negative where Nixon is concerned?


The President did better than I expected he would in California.

MeaninglessHotAir said...

Good call, Loner.

Kitty said...

To blame George Bush for dividing the nation is like blaming the rape victim. Once Democrats took his measure, they realized that only by lying and distorting reality could they possibly neutralize his appeal across the spectrum. From the moment he took office, only the negative has been reported by their lapdog press, even when it is demonstrably false. Most people don't play close attention. They are dupes, and the truth is the casualty.

terrye said...

Well you could make the case that if Hayes had not signed the Hayes compromise and let the South run over the right of the ex slaves we might have avoided a lot of pain in the long run.

Rick Ballard said...


The only negative about Coolidge was that he talked a little too much.


Yep - it wasn't a compromise, it was abnegation, a complete cave in of principles. Lincoln could have made a similiar compromise in '61.

terrye said...


If I remember right I read somewhere than Grant said it was if the South had won after all.

There were more blacks in government, more blacks who owned property etc in those few years after the Civil War than there would be for another century. Those people were not after hand outs or any like that...they just wanted a chance. If they had been allowed to have that chance unmolested back then we might have avoided generations of poverty and dysfunction.