James Buchanan, the 15th president, is generally considered the worst president in history… he was a confused, indecisive president, who may have made the Civil War inevitable by trying to appease or negotiate with the South. His most recent biographer, Jean Clark, writing for the prestigious American Presidents Series, concluded this year that his actions probably constituted treason…
Buchanan set the standard, a tough record to beat. But there are serious people who believe that George W. Bush will prove to do that, be worse than Buchanan. I have talked with three significant historians in the past few months who would not say it in public, but who are saying privately that Bush will be remembered as the worst of the presidents.
There are some numbers. The History News Network at George Mason University has just polled historians informally on the Bush record. Four hundred and fifteen, about a third of those contacted, answered — maybe they were all crazed liberals — making the project as unofficial as it was interesting. These were the results: 338 said they believed Bush was failing, while 77 said he was succeeding. Fifty said they thought he was the worst president ever. Worse than Buchanan.
For all that, he’s no James Buchanan. Perhaps the Civil War was inevitable — perhaps it was even necessary — but perhaps in both cases it was not, had there been a Chief Executive of the United States elected in 1856 whose entire plan for dealing with the sectarian issues rending the South from the rest of the nation had not been "well, let’s just try to ride this out and let it be the next guy’s problem." When he finally did become engaged on the issue, it was, as they say, far too little, far too late, and far too incompetently. Let’s just say a president whose initial response on South Carolina seceding was to say "They can’t do it, but I can’t stop them" is not a man who deserves the comfort of letting another of his executive brethren front the "worst president" line in his stead.
Say what you will about Dubya, but the Republic will not fall and shatter between now and 2008. There have been other presidents whose administrations have been bad, incompetent, malingering or some unholy combination of all three. But only one president is unforgivable, and that’s James Buchanan. They knew it at the time; during the Civil War they had to take down Buchanan’s picture in the capitol rotunda because they were afraid someone would deface it. The deaths of 600,000 soldiers, Union and Confederate, accrue to his account. Dubya’s got a while before he gets there.
Again, this is not to minimize the badness of Dubya; he’s a bad president, all right, and if one wishes to front the proposition that he’s the least competent president since Buchanan, that’s a legitimate argument in my book. It indeed takes some doing to cut in the line in front of Grant, Harding, Hoover and Carter, but Bush has got the goods, such as they are (Nixon was competent, he was just paranoid to the point of endangering the office of the presidency; he’s bad, in a scary category all his own). But let’s keep things in perspective: When it comes to worst presidents, Buchanan’s the top, he’s the Eiffel Tower. He’s earned the title in perpetuity, or at least until a president comes along who actually and irreversably destroys the United States of America.
Bush isn’t that president, and no one derives benefit in suggesting he is. I mean, honestly, people. Being the worst president since Buchanan is bad enough.