Why Bush Will Become the Textbooks' Worst President

As a Ph.D. in American history, I think it is safe to say that George W. Bush will go into the history books as the worst President in American history.

Let me assure you, I do not share this view. Any President who can start and then lose two brushfire wars, thereby revealing for the whole world to see that the American empire is a spent force, can’t be all bad. Afghanistan, as far as anyone can see on TV, is a war over headgear: turbans vs. Karzai’s furry Nehru hat. (Whenever I see a photo of Karzai, I recall a 1960s-era comic photo of Nehru, looking like a Good Humor man, with the caption: “Would you like cherry vanilla?”)

Because Bush has combined his remarkable military strategy with his Medicare prescription legislation, which will bankrupt Medicare at least a decade sooner than otherwise, he gets my grudging respect.

Furthermore, any President who can run budget deficits in the $400 billion range, year after year, thereby speeding up the bankruptcy of the Federal government, deserves credit — unlike the U.S. Treasury.

That this President singlehandedly has undermined the American public’s trust in the Federal government’s ability to establish and enforce both American foreign policy and domestic welfare policy — well, Bush’s performance is simply breathtaking. Taft conservatives and libertarians have been dreaming of someone like George W. Bush for four decades.

All this was accomplished by a man who visibly represents America’s elite: a graduate of the Harvard Business School and a member of Yale’s Skull & Bones. In terms of his credentials, George W. Bush is one of the best and the brightest. If you are thinking, “The elite has clearly lost its ability to screen itself,” I can only concur.

That scraping sound you hear is the bottom of the barrel.


In my undergraduate days, there was a tight race for the worst President between Grant and Harding. Both of their administrations were plagued by corruption scandals. Yet I am aware of no historian who blamed either Harding or Grant of having deliberately promoted corruption or having profited from it. Both of them were pictured as naïve men who did not understand the powerful lure of government money for corrupt purposes, a relationship that apparently occurs only under Republican Presidential administrations, according to textbook accounts.

In recent years, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, and Andrew Johnson have replaced Grant on several lists. These three have one thing in common: they did not invade the South to destroy slavery. Johnson attempted to limit the effects of military Reconstruction after the war. Buchanan is nevertheless ranked lower than Pierce or Johnson, for he had the audacity to delay the war, a policy that clearly bordered on treason.

Bush has come out of nowhere — or its ready substitute: Crawford, Texas — to make it onto several lists as the worst President of all time. I hope to explain why in this report.

For lists of winners and losers in a series of Presidential retroactive sweepstakes, click here.


I have a theory of the modern Presidency. I believe that men — and one determined woman — seek this office for one reason above all others: to get their pictures on those Presidential calendars that are on public school classroom walls but no others. This is the closest thing to immortality that an American can earn. The rest of the lures of Presidential power are peripheral: here today, gone tomorrow. But those calendars are forever — the American religious equivalent of Egyptian pyramids.

This means that Presidents live for posthumous recognition. They want to be treated well in the history textbooks.

Mr. Bush has good reasons to worry. The paragraphs that he will receive will dwarf the opprobrium heaped on Richard Nixon. Nixon wrote his way back into favor as a foreign policy statesman in the 1980s by promoting the globalist agenda in a series of best-selling books. He also received retroactive credit for the re-establishment of official relations with Communist China in Mao’s era. That is the sort of thing that deeply impresses liberal academic historians. It did not impress conservative historians — either of them.

Bush is unlikely to initiate anything for which the historical guild will provide praise.


It is not just failed policies that draw the wrath of historians. It is also the absence of style. The media have as their credo, “Style covereth a multitude of sins.” Jack Kennedy is the incarnation of this creed. Historians, who are part of the media, also adopt it. Teddy Roosevelt, the fiery trustbuster with teeth like a grand piano, gets applause for his crowd-pleasing style. His successor, William Howard Taft, who busted more trusts than Teddy ever did, had the style of a Solicitor General, which he had been, so he receives little credit in the textbooks.

In my generation, two Presidents have been the consummate losers in the Presidential style sweepstakes: Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush. They both seem completely ill at ease in front of a microphone. Johnson’s rhetorical inabilities were legendary. “Mah Fellow Amuricans” became the stuff of stand-up comedy routines.

The photo of Johnson lifting his shirt to display his recent gall bladder operation scar became the representative image of his Presidency. He was crude, gruff, and pushy as no President had ever been in public. But he bullied Congress into passing the kind of legislation that liberals favor, so he got a free pass for his domestic policies. It was Vietnam that sank him, but only after he was visibly losing the war. In 1964 and 1965, he was also given a free pass.

There was a reason for this. Liberals in the Progressive mold respect political power. It is the only thing they do respect. They turn against political leaders only when it is clear that the leaders have failed to implement power on a scale that destroys — sometimes literally — all those who oppose them. Long forgotten is the widespread admiration by Western intellectuals and political leaders — liberal (pre-1952) internationalist lawyer John Foster Dulles comes to mind — toward Mussolini and Hitler before World War II.

This is not something that we read about in textbook accounts of the 1930s. This is because liberals write the textbooks. Every historian has a memory hole. American intellectuals’ respect for fascist economics and Nazi eugenic policies — copied from the American sterilization laws that were ratified by Buck v. Bell (1927) — went down the guild’s memory hole only after 1936 — if then.

George W. Bush is not quite so verbally incoherent as his father, but at times he sounds really stupid. His father did not sound stupid. He sounded like a man who tripped over his tongue. Much of the time, the son sounds as though his brain has gone AWOL.

Yet Bush is not stupid. His memory for names and faces rivals that of Clinton, which is legendary. He graduated from Yale University and Harvard Business School (MBA). No one does this who lacks IQ. But Bush does not seem to possess the ability to make informed judgments based on a consideration of conflicting evidence. Most politicians possess this skill. Indeed, it is basic to their success. Bush lacks it. For him, 2 plus 2 consistently make 5, except when they make 3.


Bush’s decision-making style is another reason why the historical guild will savage him. Historians pride themselves as being able to weigh the available evidence. They do so only retroactively, of course, long after any personal risk of taking disastrous action is gone. They are drawn to people who seem to weigh the evidence before taking decisive action. Bush takes decisive action, but his actions produce the opposite of what he says they will and actually seems to believe they will. This is the predictable effect of most government policies. Bush just makes the discrepancy more visible. For this, he is despised.

He will not admit a mistake — another sign of weakness. A man of real power can admit mistakes because he can destroy those who would profit from them. Bush cannot destroy anyone except civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. So, the media now smell blood. Like chickens, they attack the defenseless to peck it to death.

Bush is not getting pecked to death because he is a conservative. He is anything but conservative. What outrages historians is that Bush is now calling into question the two icons of political liberalism: America’s foreign policy empire and its national welfare state. He is revealing in plain view that both are costly shell games. Both are bankrupting the Federal government. Both are visibly going belly-up. This appalls historians. They worked so hard for seventy years to herald these policies as the Wave of the Future. Bush is turning both of them into the elephant burial grounds for the Council on Foreign Relations.

What the historical guild holds most in contempt is failed power. They respect power, which is why Stalin and Mao have always received, if not free rides, then grudging respect for “making progressive things happen” and “pushing history forward.” But Bush is not making progressive things happen. He is making progressive things backfire in full public view. He is revealing exactly where the liberals’ version of history has always been moving: toward centralized power, reduced freedom (except sexually), increased government debt, and wars against foreign civilians that cannot be won in a world of price-competitive, low-tech weapons. George W. Bush is actively pushing the original Progressive agenda of 1898, but he is pushing it over a cliff.

The Left hates him for this.


George W. Bush will probably live long enough to see his name at the bottom of the list of all American Presidents: the worst this nation ever produced. But when asked to defend reasons for his overwhelming failure, the historians will scramble for answers acceptable to the ideology of the guild. They dare not say, “He broke the post-World War II American empire that Franklin Roosevelt launched and Harry Truman put nuclear teeth into.” They must find alternative wording. They will mumble something like this: “He overreached the available military power.” Ho, hum.

Then there is Bush’s other failure: “He bankrupted the Federal government by turning control over to Asian central banks.” Again, alternative phraseology will be developed. “He did not set realistic domestic goals.” Boring.

The real reason for the media’s hatred of Bush is this: “He has imprudently and without verbal grace smashed the Progressive agenda on the rocks of reality.” Too forthright.

So, how can the historians tar and feather him, if all he did was push the Progressive agenda too far and too fast? With this: “He was a conscious agent of the Christian Right.” The fact that none of his advisors is a card-carrying member of this vast theocratic conspiracy will not matter. Bush is seen as a fellow traveler, even though he, like Clinton (on occasion), attends a United Methodist Church.

The historians will do to Bush what Bush said he would do to Osama bin Laden. They will bring him in “dead or alive.”

Frankly, I think he is already DOA.

September20, 2006

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit He is also the author of a free 17-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible.

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