The title of “Worst President Ever” is certainly a harsh designation, and one not to be handed out lightly. In the 218 years since George Washington first took office, there have been great leaders as well as men who should have never set foot in the Oval Office. But to classify one of the Forty-One as the worst requires a close look at the contenders.
First, some notables who did not make the list:
Richard Nixon: It is true that he was a paranoid who ordered the Watergate break-in, and he was forced to resign in disgrace. But he ended the war in Vietnam and opened relations with China. In the end, this keeps off the list of worst ever, barely.
Lyndon Johnson: He escalated the Vietnam conflict to full-blown war status and relied far too heavily on his military advisors. However, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Great Society are things he doesn’t receive nearly enough credit for, which is a shame. Consider for just a moment that the poverty rate in the U.S. was lower in 1967 than it is in 2007, and then reconsider the job Johnson did.
Bill Clinton: His greatest failure had nothing to do with the Lewinsky scandal; it was his failure to intervene in the Rwandan genocide in 1994. But he brokered peace in Northern Ireland that has lasted, and peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that sadly has not. He oversaw the liberation of Kosovo and presided over an unprecedented period of economic prosperity. History me eventually remember him in the top tier of Presidents.
Millard Fillmore: The fact that you’ve never heard of him doesn’t mean he was a bad President.
Now on to those who did make the list, in reverse order:
5. Gerald Ford: He was dealt a bum hand from the start, but this does not change the fact that he accomplished almost nothing, largely because of his association with and pardon of his predecessor, Richard Nixon. He does, however, hold the distinction of being the only man to be both President and Vice-President without ever being elected.
4. Herbert Hoover: He could not have prevented the Stock Market crash and subsequent Great Depression that occurred soon after his election, but he could have made more of an attempt to improve things. His view that while people must not suffer from hunger and cold, caring for them must be primarily a local and voluntary responsibility helped deepen the crisis at a time when intervention by the federal government might have alleviated it.
3. Jimmy Carter: He has achieved far more as a former President than he ever did while in office, and this has affected our view of him. While he was President, he offered no leadership and certainly no inspiration (see his “malaise” speech for a perfect example). His foreign policy was atrocious, as was his handling of the Iran Hostage Crisis. In 1976, the country was ready, after Watergate, for a Democrat and a Washington outsider. The country got its wish in Jimmy Carter, and has never wished for it again.
2. Ulysses S. Grant: Our country loves to elect victorious generals to the Presidency. From Washington through Eisenhower, there seems to have been a feeling that success on the battlefield would mean success in the White House. Grant was proof that such is not the case. Elected to bring the country out of the chaos following the Civil War, he spent two terms looking to Congress for guidance that would not come. He was completely out of his element on the political stage, and made things worse by accepting gifts from admirers, putting friends in positions for which they were not qualified, and making Reconstruction in the South even worse by leaving it solely in the hand of a Radical Republican Congress. During his eight years in office, the government was consumed with cronyism, mismanagement, and generally went to hell.
1. George W. Bush: Perhaps history will be kinder to George W. Bush than it seems now. He did well with the global coalition that invaded Afghanistan in 2001, but hasn’t done a thing right since. His difficulties began with the fact that the Supreme Court essentially declared him President in the infamous Florida recount of 2000. Other lowlights include the invasion of Iraq, the Abu Ghraib scandal, the appointment of Donald Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense, the Valerie Plame affair, Karl Rove, the federal prosecutor firings, Alberto Gonzales, losing Republican control of Congress, and a the lowest approval rating in history. A record of failure this long is a surprise even for a man who would rather be Commissioner of Baseball than President of the United States. George W. Bush not only wins the title of worst President ever; he wins it going away.