Thursday, January 15, 2004

Flap and Doodle
There are certain things we accept on this website as givens. What goes up must come down. Briefs before boxers. Packers good, Vikings bad. George W. Bush--worst president in history. That last one is just a guess, of course. History must judge him, not those of us who are here now. And who knows? He could go on TV one night, admit he stole the 2000 election, fire the whole cabinet from Dick on down, and promise to take all of his future policy positions from the Center for American Progress, Ted Kennedy, and Al Franken, which would be the greatest act of patriotism since Nathan Hale's necktie party. So there's still time for him to save his historical bacon, and therefore, we can't say definitively whether he's the worst president ever quite yet.

Neither can we effectively judge presidents in living memory, but Nixon, Carter, and Reagan would win no prizes. I have a grudging respect for Nixon as a political strategist and infighter, and I suspect that historians 100 years from now will rank him somewhat higher than those of us who actually remember him--but always with an asterisk for his crimes and resignation. Carter spent four years making "Democratic Party" synonymous with "pathetic losers," although he's been our greatest ex-president. Reagan would have made a good king, in the symbol-of-the-state sense--nobody ever evoked the America we'd like to believe we live in better than he did, but at the same time, he loosed upon us the ideologies and the people who are currently screwing up the world.

But if we set the Great Depression as our dividing line--the fringe of living memory, say, presidents before Hoover--we can start to make some legitimate judgments. Thus my short list of worst presidents would include U.S. Grant, a great military leader who saved the Union but who as president combined Carter's out-of-depth befuddlement with a modern Republican's tolerance for graft. I'd also put James Buchanan up there, who did a great deal to speed the coming of the Civil War and responded to it by getting out of Dodge as fast as possible. (In the honorable mention category, I'd note William Henry Harrison, who didn't know enough to come in out of the rain at his 1840 inauguration and died a month afterward.) And I'd also include old Warren G. Harding, subject of a new biography by John Dean.

Harding is best known for being nominated in the original smoke-filled room, for the Teapot Dome fraud and bribery scandal involving oil leases in Wyoming, and for making love to his mistress in a White House broom closet. (Harding was quite a goat, apparently--the GOP paid off one of his mistresses to keep quiet before the 1920 election; while serving in the Senate, he fathered an out-of-wedlock child with the same woman he would later boff in the broom closet; and some people think his death in 1923 was because his wife poisoned him.)

We know, of course, that Bush will not be having sex in any White House closets. (Indeed, the unlikelihood of his having sex at all was what recommended him to a great slab of the electorate as a successor to the world-class tailhound that was Bill Clinton.) But one thing Bush has in common with Harding is his tendency to abuse the English language. Harding was capable of Bush-style mangling, but was also a master of empty phrase and cliche. Journalist H. L. Mencken said of him: "He writes the worst English that I have ever encountered. . . . It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abyss of pish and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash." (Rather like the entries on the daily "Bushisms" calendar that sits on my desk.) The poet e.e. cummings greeted news of Harding's death by writing, "The only man, woman, or child who ever wrote a simple declarative sentence with seven grammatical errors is dead."

When Harding died in office, Americans knew little about the scandals that have since tarred his reputation, and his death was greeted with unprecedented national grief. It's historians of the last 80 years who have anchored him firmly near the bottom of the hit parade. And so we can't know for sure where history will place George W. Bush one day, but we can make an early betting line. And now we're back to one of the givens on this website.

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