Historians recently joined the fun, with more than half the participants in a recent poll conducted by History News Network ranking Bush on a par with such washouts as James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson and Herbert Hoover, and fully 12 percent - a large number for such a wait-and-see bunch - declaring him flat-out the worst president in American history. A cover story in Rolling Stone last month by Princeton's Sean Wilentz, a leading U.S. historian, announced the ignominious verdict.
"Calamitous presidents, faced with enormous difficulties . . . have divided the nation, governed erratically and left the nation worse off," Wilentz wrote. "In each case, different factors contributed to the failure: disastrous domestic policies, foreign-policy blunders and military setbacks, executive misconduct, crises of credibility and public trust. Bush, however, is one of the rarities in presidential history: He has not only stumbled badly in every one of these key areas, he has also displayed a weakness common among the greatest presidential failures - an unswerving adherence to a simplistic ideology."
The case Wilentz makes to support this verdict cites, to my mind, a fairly conservative list of Bush atrocities and incompetencies: the war, the wrecked economy, the deficit, Katrina, Plamegate, fundamentalist hostility to science and subversion of the Constitution. There's plenty more that belongs in the dossier - e.g., global warming cop-out, pre-9/11 intelligence malfunction, the popularization of torture and (if the truth ever reaches the mainstream media) vote fraud in three elections - but why bother? The stench is already powerful enough to indicate we're in the deepest part of the landfill. Bush is the worst prez ever. Ouch. History is waiting for him with a broom and dustpan.
While one day, when everything's back on track, W may stand for "Worst," today it stands for "Warning!" The guy now occupying the White House may well be the most dangerous president in American history, and not because he's an aberration, but rather because he's homegrown and recognizable: the worst of who we are, dressed up in a suit and power tie. We need to rouse ourselves, as citizens, and stand between this reeling administration and . . . the Constitution. The rest of the world.
Consider the appalling matter of Bush's moral leadership: the lies and self-serving leaks and reckless doctrine of pre-emptive war and, maybe most of all, the torture. Bush's big accomplishment in this area has not been to blaze new ground in the mistreatment of detainees - such techniques as water-boarding, sleep deprivation and sexual humiliation weren't invented on his watch - but rather to strip America of its face-saving hypocrisy.
"But let's be clear about what is unprecedented: not the torture, but the openness," Naomi Klein wrote recently in The Guardian. "Past administrations kept their 'black ops' secret; the crimes were sanctioned but they were committed in the shadows, officially denied and condemned. The Bush administration has broken this deal: Post-9/11, it demanded the right to torture without shame, legitimized by new definitions and new laws."
When we dredge our shadow history, we confront a host of horrors. Every decade has its secret graves. In the '80s of Ronald Reagan, not only were we allied with a Saddam Hussein at the height of his murderous power, but we were also training Central American death-squad goons at our School of the Americas and supporting and underwriting the regimes in whose names they spread their terror. Both Reagan and Jimmy Carter, of course, were enamored of Osama bin Laden and the mujahideen of Afghanistan, who morphed into the Taliban.
In the '60s and '70s, the CIA-run Phoenix Program was responsible for the deaths of 20,000 Vietnamese and the torture of thousands more. And as Alfred McCoy, author of "A Question of Torture," notes, the CIA spent a billion dollars researching torture and coercion techniques in the '50s and early '60s; the extraordinary results of these experiments are now on display at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.
"When torture is pseudo-legal and those responsible deny that it is torture," Klein wrote, "what dies is what Hannah Arendt called 'the juridical person in man.' Soon victims no longer bother to search for justice, so sure are they of the futility, and danger, of that quest. This is a larger mirror of what happens inside the torture chamber, when prisoners are told they can scream all they want because no one can hear them and no one is going to save them."
We dare not wait for history to impeach George W. Bush. We need to head him off at the pass right now, and not let him, in the two and a half years remaining in his term, add to his legacy as "the worst president in history" - by, say, attacking Iran.
Indeed Bush, with his naked agenda, has presented the nation with an extraordinary opportunity to redefine itself. If a citizens' movement can rescue basic American principles of justice and fairness from the realpolitik compromises of the last half century, we'll owe W, in his neutered retirement, a thank-you note for waking us up.
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Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is an editor at Tribune Media Services and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at email@example.com or visit his Web site at commonwonders.com.
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