Leader Blues

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

EDITORIALS>>Bottom of the barrel

The religion editor of the Arkansas Democrat Gazette scored an unlikely scoop by calling up former President Jimmy Carter and getting him to say that President Bush was the worst president in history from the standpoint of the United Statesí relations with the world.

Carterís appraisal seemed altogether unremarkable and unworthy of the blockbuster treatment it received in the national media because the same judgment has become a refrain of historians and commentators and Carter had said almost as much in the past.

But former presidents, we learned, are supposed to follow a code of being circumspect in talking about sitting presidents.
Sure enough, Carter began to apologize and soften his remark, saying that it might have been misinterpreted. We frankly were unaware of the code, although we have observed Bill Clintonís amazingly respectful tones when he speaks of President Bush.

We remember Harry Trumanís ill-disguised contempt for his successor, Dwight Eisenhower. Truman did not honor speech codes. Herbert Hoover publicly belittled his successor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, in terms about as unflattering as Carterís.
Carter limited his assessment of President Bush to the international ramifications of his policies. Bushís decision to invade Iraq without international backing or sound cause, his mismanagement of the war and his failure to make a serious effort to resolve Israeli-Arab conflicts have magnified Arab radicalism, made the Middle East more unstable and dangerous than ever and diminished American prestige and influence around the globe. That is Carterís assessment and it is hard to take exception. But does that make Bush the worst president?

He has some stiff competition: the crook-infested administration of Warren G. Harding, who once confided ďI an not fit for this office and never should have been hereĒ; Herbert Hoover, who shrugged while the nation fell into depression; James Buchanan, whose despondency and inaction led the nation into the Civil War; and Buchananís predecessor, Franklin Pierce, who was no better.

Their failings, however, were almost altogether domestic, and Carter was talking about foreign policy. That limits the competition to the century in which the United States played on the world stage.

Who was worse? Carter will get some nominations because of the dispiriting Iran hostage crisis, which consumed much of his presidency. But Carter fathered the human-rights foundation of American foreign policy, which raised international reverence and which subsequent presidents have embraced in theory if not in practice. Richard Nixon?

He is ranked among the best presidents on foreign policy, although he let the Vietnam War languish for three and a half years after it could have been settled ó that is, lost ó on the same terms. And what about Lyndon Johnson, who escalated the conflict in Vietnam and then sleeplessly could find no way to shut it down and save face?

But the repercussions were in blood and treasure and on the American psyche. It would prove to have little effect on U. S. prestige and sway.

George W. Bush certainly looks like the worst, but the horrors that are so apparent now may not have the lasting consequences that so many predicted when it began and that we all now fear. The world has a way of healing rapidly.
Letís have this conversation again in 50 years.

Ernie Dumas writes editorials for The Leader.