The Worst President of the Modern Era

In the middle of the 57th month of his presidency, George W. Bush is like a Texas rancher who is trapped in the middle of his own pasture, but doesn’t know it. He keeps insisting that he’ll just put his best foot forward — never noticing that he is surrounded by nothing but upturned rakes.

Time after time, he steps out firmly and boldly. Time after time, each rake’s nameplate ends up imprinted on his forehead: Iraq. Afghanistan. Iran. Osama. Katrina. Rita. DeLay. Frist. Terrorists. Deficit. Abu Ghraib. Rummy. Cheney. FEMA. Jobs. Outsourcing. Pensions. Abortion. Enron. Halliburton. Social Security. Loose Nukes. Health Costs. Bio-terror. “Dirty” Bombs. Stem Cells. Global Warming. Troops Without Armor. Arab Oil. Record Oil Prices. Record Oil Company Profits. Rich Get Richer. Middle-Class Gets Poorer.

Viewed from across the seas, the Leader of the Free World must look like the King of Slapstick. But nobody is laughing. Not even in France, where Jerry Lewis is idolized, but curiously George W. Bush is not.

Bush is a president for whom just about everything has gone wrong and just about nothing has gone right. (Except, of course, his re-election by the American people.) A lot of America’s problems began with horrendous actions by others. In 2001, America’s homeland was hit as never before by our sworn enemy, al Qaeda. In 2005, America’s homeland was hit by another devastating assault, this time by Mother Nature.

But that does not obscure the toughest truth: Most of what has gone so horribly wrong with the Bush presidency has been Bush’s own doing.

It was the president’s headstrong decisions — unsupported by verified facts, but supported nonetheless by his willfully dysfunctional high command — that created the burdens of price and pain now being borne by the American people.

Bush was so right after 9/11when he ordered the retaliation against America’s attackers — al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban, who harbored the terrorists. But then, before that war was won, the president wrongly diverted the bulk of the U.S. military effort away from the mission to crush al Qaeda and capture Osama bin Laden. Faster than you could smirk “dead or alive,” he diverted U.S. troops to a new goal to topple Iraq’s dictator, who, while despicable, was no immediate threat to America and no partner of bin Laden. Today, bin Laden is still alive and al Qaeda is replenishing, recruiting and redeploying.

But that is not the worst thing that Bush did to his presidency and us.

The worst was that when he ordered the invasion of Iraq, he didn’t have the slightest idea of what would happen after Saddam Hussein was toppled. Nor did any of his high command. They didn’t bring in enough troops to seal the borders and stop the infiltration, via Syria and Iran, of outside terrorists — Muslim militants who have rushed into the vacuum. They are killing U.S. troops daily, in small numbers that add up to big numbers. They are killing Iraqi civilians who only want to live their lives in peace. Suddenly, no outcome is assured.

It is intolerable to think that, once U.S. troops leave, Iraq might erupt in civil war and become what Afghanistan was: a haven where terrorists can plot attacks and killings carried out around the world.

Our military success has turned into our military nightmare. It is a nightmare never dreamed of by the willfully dysfunctional decision-makers who run the Bush presidency. It is a nightmare that revisits American families every night.

That is why, at this date, George W. Bush’s presidency looms so sadly as the worst of the modern era — worse by far than Lyndon Johnson’s presidency. He gave America a legacy of civil-rights legislation that ended our national shame, even as he gave us the escalation of the Vietnam War that became a national tragedy. Worse, too, than Richard Nixon’s presidency _ he said he wasn’t a crook, but was a proven criminal. Yet, Nixon was still a leader with global vision and domestic environmental accomplishment.

Go further back. Americans have had corrupt and inept presidencies such as Warren Harding’s and Chester Arthur’s. Yet they did little damage to the planet or its people. That cannot be said for today’s incumbent.

The sad trajectory of this presidency is that George W. Bush could wind up as the worst president in U.S. history.

That would be disastrous for us all. He has little time to get it right and, it seems, no sense of how to do it. But congressional Democrats and Republicans need to unite to ensure that U.S. troops stay in the Gulf long enough to ensure that the Afghanistanization of Iraq does not become Bush’s legacy and our fate.

(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)