Adam Ash

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Thursday, May 25, 2006

US Diary: will we be able to brag one day that we lived through the worst presidency in US history?

1. Under the Cold Eye of History -- by Robert P. Watson

Ever since 1948, when historian Arthur Schlesinger Sr. first polled leading scholars and asked them to rank our presidents, updated polls have been released every few years. As a participant in the current poll, I spent several weeks thinking long and hard about the best and worst of our country's presidents -- and about President Bush's eventual place in history.

As aides and supporters worry whether Bush's presidency can be "salvaged," I respectfully suggest the future of the country, rather than the president's legacy, is the topic more worth pondering. The forthcoming poll will be the first to include a preliminary ranking of this President Bush. So, here is my prediction:

There is much agreement by scholars as to the greatest presidents; they are Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, George Washington and Theodore Roosevelt, with Harry Truman, Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson not far behind. These great leaders provide a standard by which all presidents are measured -- and clues as to how Bush measures up. From the great presidents we know that the country is well-served by leaders who exhibit the following traits:

Humanity, compassion, and respect for others
A governing style that unifies, not divides
Rhetorical skills and the ability to communicate a clear, realistic vision
Willingness to listen to experts and the public
Ability to admit error, accept criticism and be adaptable
Engaged and inquisitive, with a sense of perspective and history
Integrity, inspiring trust among the people
Moral courage in not shrinking from challenges

Unfortunately, Bush's presidency has been the polar opposite of this list. This brings up the matter of who are our worst presidents. Again, scholars are in agreement, listing Warren Harding, Andrew Johnson, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan.

Like them, Bush has been tone deaf, disinterested in advice and evidence that contradict his beliefs, intellectually disengaged from the crises that have enveloped his administration, and arrogant in exercising power. Bush's failure is most apparent in the major crises of his presidency, namely mishandling the war in Iraq and Hurricane Katrina, recklessly amassing the world's largest deficits and debt, and failing to lead on pressing challenges such as the skyrocketing costs of health care, fuel and a college education.

In each case, he steadfastly refused to adjust, adapt or alter his flawed strategy. These missteps bode poorly for Bush because a president's ultimate legacy is how he responds to crisis, particularly war.

Undoubtedly, the source of the problem rests with Bush's personal style. Ironically, this is the very trait about which he and his supporters boasted as a candidate.

Bush's shortcomings are numerous and can best be seen in the mountain of wildly foolish and juvenile official remarks he has made in office, from his premature boast of "mission accomplished" aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln to his goading terrorists and suicide bombers to "bring 'em on!" And they have.

The president continues to proclaim success in the face of overwhelming and incontrovertible failure, while spinning or even outright suppressing facts and evidence to the point where one wonders if he is in touch with reality. Examples abound, including his insistence that an "abstinence-only" policy will prevent HIV-AIDS or his decision to legalize the sale of assault weapons. Bush has repeatedly suppressed intelligence about the war, ignored medical evidence in decisions by the FDA and mocked scientific studies on environmental degradation, while both his attorneys general have stood behind legal and constitutional interpretations that fly in the face of reason, precedent and the vision of the Founding Fathers.

A particularly disturbing trait of this president has been the culture of secrecy and deceit that has permeated the White House, a problem compounded by his refusal to explain himself and treatment of questions (and questioners) as if they were treasonous. To be sure, unlike Lincoln (who appealed to "our better angels" in times of crisis) and FDR (who affirmed that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself"), Bush opted for the low road, governing on fear and distraction. Far from uniting the nation and reaching out, he has sealed himself off from the public, press and critics and divided this nation more sharply than anytime since the Civil War.

Indeed, the president has long passed the point of simply being untrustworthy; he has made a mockery of the office. That Bush will be remembered by history as a failure is now conventional wisdom among scholars of the presidency.

So, the question becomes how far down the ranking list will he be?

Bush will likely be remembered much as is Warren Harding, who was disinterested in policy details, brought a group of corrupt cronies to the White House and stumbled through one mishap after the other. He is remembered as something of a jovial but incompetent puppet for corporate interests, and for setting the nation on a course to the Great Depression.

But it is James Buchanan, president from 1857-1861, who often earns the dubious title of "worst president" because he lost the Union to civil war on his watch, and failed to change course until it was too late.

When history renders its cold assessment of George W. Bush, I believe he will find himself alongside Harding and Buchanan as one of the worst presidents in American history. Bush's legacy will likely be that of death, deficits and deceit, and it could well take this nation a decade or more to recover from his presidency.

(Robert Watson, Ph.D., won the Distinguished Teacher of the Year Award this year at Florida Atlantic University and is the author or editor of 25 books on politics. He can be reached at

2. Wow! Iraqi Leader Takes Bush's Calls -- by Robert Scheer

George W. Bush received a standing ovation Monday from the National Restaurant Association convention, which might have been expected had he promised to guarantee a right to exploit immigrant cooks and dishwashers through a guest-worker program. But that wasn’t the president’s topic, and the applause came after Mr. “Mission Accomplished” bragged about the latest “incremental” progress in Iraq.

“[W]e have now reached a turning point in the struggle between freedom and terror,” Bush said of the partial formation of a new Iraqi government under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. If you search for this quote on Google, though, be careful not to confuse it with the many other similar moments in Iraq’s recent history. For example, two years ago Bush said that “the rise of a free and self-governing Iraq will deny terrorists a base of operation, discredit their narrow ideology, and give momentum to reformers across the region,” after the U.S. officially turned over sovereignty.

And then there was the “important milestone” Bush celebrated when a temporary governing council was formed in July 2003; the “turning point in the history of Iraq, the history of the Middle East and the history of freedom” two months later when Iraqis elected a parliament; and the selection of a prime minister last month, which was “an important milestone toward our victory in Iraq” and “a turning point for the Iraqi citizens.”

With all these turns, it’s no wonder Americans are a little “unsettled” about this quagmire, to use the commander in chief’s own delicate description of the public’s deep and bitter frustration with this war. Despite the public’s nausea over the war, hope springs eternal for a White House panicked by the prospect of a Democratic-controlled Congress with the power to investigate its mendacity. And so Bush was back in form Monday, proclaiming that the latest head honcho in Iraq has got the right stuff and that the terrorists are quaking in their sandals.

Problem is, like everything about his Iraq policy since he lied to us about Saddam Hussein being connected with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the president refuses to allow reality into his picture. Because when a government is formed that has no power over a slew of murderous sectarian militias and will govern from behind the walls of a “Green Zone” protected by an occupying army, it still lacks the legitimacy of a wooden dinar. “Iraqis are becoming foreigners in their own country,” said the new prime minister, acknowledging, unlike our president, that things have been getting worse, not better. Bush, on the other hand, is so desperate for positive signs that he is happy just to get a callback from an Iraqi leader. “He wouldn’t have taken my phone call a year ago,” Bush said Monday of the new Iraqi parliament speaker. “He’s now taken it twice.” Wow, and it cost only $200 billion and thousands of maimed and dead American soldiers to get the president’s call returned.

Bush might want to save space on his speed-dial list, though, as Iraq is probably the most dangerous place on Earth to be a politician. Iraq is a failed state and has been since Bush’s neocon advisers led him by the nose to not only take the country by force but to then demolish every governmental and military structure in place that might have been used to support some semblance of post-invasion stability.

For his part, the new prime minister, himself a militant Shiite, seems to know where the real power lies: Even as he pledged to stop the murderous “sectarian cleansing” most eagerly undertaken by Shiite militias, he promised to “honor” and “make use” of those same forces.

The “turning point” Bush is actually concerned about is the U.S. midterm elections, coming up fast in his windshield. Because Iraq isn’t going to be fixed anytime soon and the troops are not coming home, the president is once again trying to sell the lie of Iraqi progress in an attempt to keep his opposition from taking control of Congress and using subpoena power to ask the right questions about how we found ourselves in such a mess. Questions such as the one Bush pointedly ignored, about the missing WMDs, raised by at least one sober delegate to the restaurateurs’ convention. Or about how come Al Qaeda was able to operate in Iraq only after the U.S. invasion and not before. The pressing test for the ideal of democracy lies not with the Iraqis, who must make their own history, but rather with an awakened U.S. citizenry finally holding its imperial president accountable.

(Robert Scheer is the editor of and author of “ Playing President .” Email to:


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