The last few months has seen a lot of moments where it has looked like liberals are rehabilitating George W. Bush in response to Trump. This is absurd. Back at the end of Bush years, a lot of people were calling him the worst president of all time. I disagreed with this. George W. Bush was a terrible president. But the worst of all time–Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Pierce, Harding, and a few others–are really, truly, horrifyingly awful. I made that point repeatedly on blogs, including in comments here, before I was asked to join LGM. Now Donald Trump, that’s someone with the qualities of the worst presidents ever. We are experiencing a modern version of what a truly abysmal president looks like.
But none of this means we should be looking at Bush or other terrible recent Republicans favorably. And yet, Ian Millhiser, writing at the site by arguably the most important Democratic Party think tank, decides to celebrate President’s Day by discussing five underrated presidents, including 3 recent Republican presidents. Just as a political decision, this shows how liberals so often just don’t get the rules of the game. This would NEVER happen on a right-wing media site. Never. It’s so frustrating.
But then the merits of these choices are largely flabbergasting. Ulysses S. Grant, fine. He’s gone from underrated to overrated almost overnight, at least as far as these things go. Grant was an average president perhaps, but his positions on civil rights have been overstated. Toward the end of his presidency, he openly lamented the Fifteenth Amendment, for instance. And the corruption problem his administration helped foster was really bad. Grant himself, who looked up to plutocrats, was a mark rather than a perp, but that was not the case for many of his appointees. In any case, he certainly was underrated and maybe still is in some circles.
You want to rehabilitate Chester Arthur, fine, I guess. The man did sign the Chinese Exclusion Act though, which Millhiser doesn’t even mention. I agree that we need to actively defend the Pendleton Civil Service Act today, amazingly. But Arthur wasn’t a good president for signing that bill, or at least that’s not a great basis to rethink a whole presidency. But really, who cares.
Who is #1? George W. Bush! Why? Because of W’s policy on HIV in Africa. Fine. But one good policy does not erase, oh I don’t know, Iraq, Katrina, the economic collapse, extraordinary rendition, GITMO, the attempt to privatize Social Security, the Patriot Act, and about 100 other things I could think of in the next 5 minutes. Yes, the HIV in Africa policy was a good one. Feel free to acknowledge it. It absolutely does not make George W. Bush an underrated president. He’s easily a bottom 10 president and arguably bottom 5.
The rest of the list is a mess too. Millhiser repeats one of this blog’s biggest hobbyhorses–citing legislation passed overwhelmingly by Congress as a reason Richard Nixon is underrated. Yes, what political bravery to sign environmental legislation that passed the House 403-5 or whatever. Richard Nixon, Last Liberal President is a poison on our popular political history. And then there is the weird justification of President Cop-a-Feel:
Bush makes this list, in other words, because he represents a lost era in American history when the election of a president of the one party was a reason for partisans of the other party to mourn, but not a reason to fall into despondency or to fear that the government would entirely turn away from their concerns. George H.W. Bush was not a nihilist. He believed he was in a dialogue with liberals. He supported some of their goals and was willing to compromise on others. He often tried to move policy in a more conservative direction, but he had no interest in a revolution. And he certainly didn’t try to sweep away all of the progressive accomplishments of the twentieth century.
You can make a reasonable case for HW being underrated. A case based on nostalgia for a lost time, those glorious days when Republican presidents got into the Oval Office by running racist ads designed by Lee Atwater, is not that case.
Millhiser’s list is pretty terrible, both on the merits and on the broader justifications. Again, even if the arguments he made were good, why would a liberal choose 5 Republican presidents, including 3 recent presidents, as the most underrated? That’s terrible politics for a liberal site. Moreover, the arguments themselves are bad.
I really don’t understand the mindset of liberals sometimes.