Although George W. Bush is probably not the worst president in U.S. history (Woodrow Wilson may have that dubious honor), the president may be in contention for that title in the post-World War II era. Although he still has two and a half years to go in his term and could conceivably orchestrate a late-inning rally, the way he has run his administration to date makes that doubtful. But President Bush does have some stiff competition from other postwar administrations that failed those of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard M. Nixon.
Because of his charisma and because he died before his time, John F. Kennedy is still a pop icon more than 40 years after his death. But most historians believe that the public overrates his presidency. JFK was meek on civil rights and approved the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion by Cuban exiles attempting to overthrow Castro’s regime only to abandon them after they were under fire on Cuba’s beaches. But his most dangerous actions came before and during the Cuban missile crisis, after which he was praised by many for making Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev withdraw Soviet nuclear missiles from the island.
The Soviets began to install long-range missiles in Cuba, in part, because of fears of a full-blown U.S. invasion. Yet JFK and Robert McNamara, JFK’s secretary of defense, acknowledged privately that the Soviet missiles in Cuba didn’t alter the nuclear balance, which favored the United States. The missiles in Cuba reduced U.S. warning time for an attack, but the United States didn’t (and still doesn’t) have an effective defense against missile attacks. When rumors first surfaced of Soviet missiles being installed in Cuba, JFK admitted privately that if he hadn’t made tough public statements that this violated vital U.S. security interests, he could have done nothing about the missiles. And information has recently surfaced indicating that doing something about the long-range Soviet missiles created a greater risk of nuclear holocaust than even the widespread fears of the time imagined. Despite the earlier Bay of Pigs fiasco, JFK was considering the invasion of Cuba as an option (to remove the missiles), this time using U.S. forces. But unbeknownst to him and his advisers, the Soviets had installed short-range tactical nuclear weapons to deter or defend against any invasion aimed at taking out the long-range nuclear missiles being installed. If the United States had invaded, the crisis could have quickly escalated into a nuclear conflagration. Although the favorable U.S.-Soviet nuclear balance was not in danger of being compromised, JFK’s competitive nature caused him to risk incineration of the world in order to best Khrushchev.
Although Lyndon B. Johnson made many more breakthroughs on civil rights than JFK, he started a war in an unimportant backwater region of the world that he knew he was likely to lose (just after the French had been defeated there) because he feared criticism from the Right about being soft on communism. The pointless war cost the lives of 58,000 U.S. troops and many more Vietnamese and destroyed the country in a failed attempt to save it from communism. The unpopular war caused widespread domestic unrest in the United States and, in response, prompted government surveillance of its own citizens. Among liberals, LBJ gets credit for the massive domestic spending of the "Great Society" program, but he knowingly threw money at social problems without a clear idea of how the government could be successful in solving them. These programs weren’t successful, and most failed.
Despite Richard Nixon’s important diplomatic opening to China and détente with the Soviet Union, the massive corruption in his administration and the misuse of both the FBI and CIA condemn his record as president. Also, before ending the war in Indochina as he had promised, he invaded Cambodia, supported the invasion of Laos, and indiscriminately bombed Vietnam actions that either violated the Constitution or could be deemed war crimes. In the end, Nixon obtained a diplomatic settlement a fig leaf for U.S. withdrawal that could have been obtained four years before, thus avoiding many war deaths.
But George W. Bush can compete with each one of these lesser lights of the presidency. Instead of using all the U.S. government’s national security resources to capture or kill Osama bin Laden, the perpetrator of the 9/11 attacks, Bush invaded an unrelated country, has become bogged down in a quagmire and civil war, and has unintentionally provided a training ground for and fueled the hatred of a jihadist terrorist movement that will probably attack U.S. targets for decades. If he had been president at the beginning of World War II, Bush would have responded to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the Nazi declaration of war on the United States by invading Romania. But surprisingly, this Iraq fiasco is not the most dangerous thing the president has done. He has used the never-ending war on terror to claim unlimited power for the president during wartime. For example, he has flouted the Constitution by detaining prisoners without trial, spied on Americans without the constitutionally required warrants, and blatantly said that he will follow a congressionally passed law against torture when he feels like it.
None of the other postwar presidents have claimed unlimited power during wartime or crises. This is a truly dangerous claim, especially when the war is perpetual. The individual liberties guaranteed to citizens unique to the American system could be threatened by even greater future executive authoritarianism. In the Constitution, in reaction to the despotic monarchs of Europe, the founders narrowly restricted the executive’s power. Bush’s arrogant power grab, which attempts to eviscerate the checks and balances that are at the heart of the U.S. Constitution, probably makes him the most dangerous and therefore the worst president in the post-World War II era.