Political Mercury

April 21, 2011 |

By Douglas Burns


Which president is the worst?


For weeks and weeks, Donald Trump had the opportunity to fire facial contortionist, head-spinning philosopher Gary Busey from NBC’s “Celebrity Apprentice.”

Granted, Busey, an iconoclastic actor, has been entertaining, even for many of us not usually drawn to reality TV and The Donald’s posturing. But, really, Trump? You just got around to firing Busey in last Sunday night’s show? And then you’re telling the nation that President Barack Obama is the worst commander in chief in American history?

“ Look, he’s been a horrible president,” Trump told FOX News (and repeated later to Tea Partiers in Florida). “I always said the worst president was Jimmy Carter. Guess what? Jimmy Carter goes to second place. Barack Obama has been the worst president ever. The history of this country, Barack Obama is number one.”

Such hyperbole has vaulted Trump into surprising political relevancy as he pulls a very public Hamlet act on whether to seek the GOP nomination for the presidency himself.

But Obama as the worst president?

If Trump could resurrect some past White House occupants and gather them for a special presidents’ season of “Celebrity Apprentice,” perhaps jointly produced with The History Channel, it is doubtful, if he were honest, that Trump, perched royally at the board room table in his namesaked New York building, would send Barack Obama down the elevator first.

Charles Neu, a highly accomplished American history professor raised by one of the staunchest Republicans ever to live in Carroll County, says an easy answer in his business these days is the “worst” president one.

Which presidency is the worst in history?

To lay the ground rules, Neu says it doesn’t make sense to compare 19th century presidents with modern-day commanders-in-chief.

But if one goes with a modern time frame, say post-1945 where the context is somewhat the same in terms of powers of the office, President George W. Bush doesn’t fare well.

“ He’s easily the worst — no contest,” Neu said in an interview.

Charles Neu, the younger brother of former Republican Lt. Gov. Art Neu and the son of former 26-year Carroll Mayor Arthur N. Neu, was with the Brown University History Department for more than 30 years before moving to the Miami area. Charles Neu has dedicated his life to studying great men, and he finds no greatness in George W. Bush.

“ He never had much of a serious purpose in his life,” Neu said in an interview. “He never really even had much of a business career. He’s not even well-educated though he had a chance to become well-educated, but not the will to do so. And this guy ends up leading the nation? He doesn’t even have good verbal skills. He’s clearly a person who doesn’t read very much. You just watch him speak and struggle to find words.”

In the 2009 book “Recarving Rushmore,” author Ivan Eland — a graduate of Iowa State University — examines presidents based on peace, prosperity and liberty.

Democrat Andrew Johnson, who served right after President Lincoln was assassinated, is regularly ranked as an “abject failure,” Eland notes.

“ Johnson’s intransigence merely led to the very severe Reconstruction policies he abhorred,” Eland writes. “Despite a horrific Civil War, blacks were little better than they were before the conflict.”

Broadening the “worst president” debate clearly would bring Bush some serious competition, Neu said. There’s our own Herbert Hoover, the man on watch as the nation entered the Depression (although he often gets unfair treatment, lots of really smart Iowans tell me). Then we have James Buchanan, Lincoln’s predecessor, and a chief executive who helped set the stage for the Civil War through what historian Sean Wilentz calls “dithering” when faced with Southern succession.

Trump is on to something, although he didn’t intend it. Today, a terrible president actually can be much more disastrous than, say, Johnson or Buchanan. That’s because the role of the presidency then was so small compared to today, Neu said.

“ What the federal government did didn’t affect most people,” Neu said. “It was a very, very small operation until The New Deal began to kick in and then even more when the Cold War began to kick and we began to create this vast national security apparatus which is still with us today.”

Woodrow Wilson’s state department had around 300 people in 1913, and Wilson had a White House Staff with only a few people.

“ He typed out many of his own diplomatic messages on a little portable typewriter,” Neu said.

Obama is only a little more than two years into his presidency. The stock market has rebounded dramatically during his tenure and job growth is consistently rising. At the very least, his presidency is an unfinished life. CV


Douglas Burns is a fourth-generation Iowa newspaperman who writes for The Carroll Daily Times Herald and offers columns for Cityview.