The funny thing about a list like this is that you can’t just compare each man to each man, each person’s character to the next person’s character, or leadership ability, or political philosophy, and so on. It all depends on context. James Buchanan was perhaps the most prepared person to ever become a U.S. president. He certainly had the most decorated C.V. And yet, due to the collapse of the Union and the onset of the Civil War under his administration, he is universally seen as a failure (and rightfully so). Though this was partly his own doing, it also has much to do with context—in many ways, the Civil War, or something like it, was coming, whatever the president decided to do. Bill Clinton often and publicly bemoaned the fact that he never got to lead the country during a major crisis, and thus missed out on becoming a “great” president. Yet I would argue he is held in higher esteem based on factors largely outside his control, like the booming economy of the 1990s.
The “goodness” and “badness” of a president depends, naturally, on his own inimitable qualities, but also on contextual events and situations largely beyond his control. Were this a ranking of presidents who agreed with me politically, it would look very different. (Trust me, it would!)
This all brings me to George W. Bush. In the early days of the Obama White House, some forlorn Republicans thought it would be a good idea to install “Miss me yet?” billboards with a waving Bush 43. It was not a good idea, and not many people missed him at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. And yet, Bush has received a lot of Strange New Respect recently: he has admirably stayed out of the limelight and allowed Barack Obama to lead the country; his turn as a painter has baffled, pleasantly surprised, and made uncomfortable many liberal artists who, though they may despise the man, find his art interesting and well done; and, of course, he opposed the candidacy of Donald Trump, which, in the eyes of some, absolves many former sins.
His post-presidency has been admirable. And Bush himself hoped that he would turn out like Harry Truman, who, though his job approval rate at one point was 22 percent, is now routinely placed in the top 10 of U.S. presidents all-time. Unfortunately for Bush, I think the comparison is pretty apt—both were not very good presidents. (Perhaps it is not so unfortunate for Bush, as this “ranking” doesn’t really matter all that much. Anyway: onward and upward!)
This could be the time to write out the litany of reasons why Bush was a bad president, but I think you all know it by heart: Iraq War, torture, Patriot Act, yada, yada, yada. (So we are clear, I’m yada-yadaing the brief against Bush, not the actual events themselves. They were awful. It’s not like I yada-yada’d over the best parts.)
What’s more interesting to me are the contextual reasons why Bush is so low. The fact that the attacks of September 11—contra the Truthers, an event that was outside his control—happened on his watch completely changed the outlook of his presidency. Remember, Bush preached the virtues of a humble foreign policy during his candidacy. He campaigned against the foreign adventurism of the Clinton Administration. He campaigned as a reformer who cared about the middle and working class in America. He aspired to be a domestic president. And this would have made for a much different administration.
A list like this cannot be “who I would have rather voted for.” Had I the ability to vote, I would have certainly voted for Dubya over Al “Manbearpig” Gore in 2000. Given the choice of Bush vs. Kerry in 2004, I may have done the same thing. (Shoot, even Pat Buchanan, who was perhaps Bush’s biggest Republican foe, endorsed Bush in ’04.) And I would have probably supported Bush over many of the people who wind up ahead of him on this list.
But dem’s da breaks. As all historians know, when thinking historically, one must always remember context. That goes for presidential rankings as well.