December 24, 2005
Annus Miserabilis

By David M. Shribman

Here's a Dirty Dozen of terrible years for presidents.

How does 2005 rank in the parade of horrors?

OK, so this was not a very good year, not in the classic way, not in the small-town-girls-and-soft-summer-nights (we'd hide from the lights on the village green) kind of way, and certainly not for President Bush. In this year, the war in Iraq churned on, the president faced questions about civil liberties and torture, his poll numbers plummeted and members of his own party grew ever more restless.

The fall in the president's approval ratings got a lot of commentators churned up about how terrible things looked for him, and in truth it is hard to make the case that this is a season of triumph for the Bush White House. But one of the worst years ever for a president? I'm not so sure.

Let's agree that the worst year any president ever had was 1861. This was in the Lincoln administration, which should give the president some cause for hope. But it was a truly terrible year. First the Union fell apart, then Fort Sumter was surrendered, then Confederate Gens. P.G.T. Beauregard, Joseph E. Johnston and Stonewall Jackson defeated Union forces at Bull Run. The situation looked desperate, and was.

But if we look only at modern time (and for convenience, let's define that as beginning with the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt in 1901), and if we omit years in which the presidents themselves died (Warren G. Harding in 1923, Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945 and John F. Kennedy in 1963) and then for good measure also omit years of catastrophes from abroad (Pearl Harbor removing 1941 from consideration, the al-Qaida attacks removing 2001 from contention), then what emerges are a dozen truly awful years for presidents. And in my calculations, Mr. Bush's 2005 is tied for seventh, with Harry Truman's 1948 along with his 1950. A little perspective can do wonders.

The worst year any president ever had in modern times was 1974, when Richard M. Nixon was forced to resign the White House after the Watergate scandals. Things don't get much worse than that.

My nominee for second-worst year was 1929, when Herbert Hoover, perhaps the modern man most qualified for high office, suffered the ignominy of the Great Depression and watched millions of his fellow Americans lose their jobs, their homes, their families and their hopes. Then comes 1919, when Woodrow Wilson won the Nobel Peace Prize but lost the prize that would have defined his life: Senate approval of the Versailles Treaty with its provision for a League of Nations. In his drive to win the treaty and the league, the president suffered a debilitating stroke and never fully recovered.

Fourth place belongs to 1968 and to the tragedy of Lyndon Johnson. In this horrible year, the Tet offensive convinced millions of Americans that the Vietnam War could not be won; the "Dump Johnson" movement prevailed when the president announced on March 31 he would not run for another term; and the nation seemed to spin out of control when both the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated and there was rioting in the streets of Chicago during the Democratic National Convention.

President Bush's predecessor claims the fifth-worst year, which was 1998 -- the year he was impeached for charges growing out of the affair he had with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. He was acquitted the next year in the Senate, but Bill Clinton remains only the second president to be impeached.

Only fifth-worst presidential year, you ask? When his impeachment was selected by journalists as only the 53rd biggest story of the 20th century, President Clinton said: "Number 53? I mean, what does a guy have to do to make the top 50?"

In sixth place is 1979, the year Jimmy Carter gave the disastrous "malaise" speech (he never used the word, but that didn't seem to matter), seemed helpless as Iranian radicals seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took American diplomats hostage, struggled with an energy crisis and lost control of his own party, ensuring that he would have a prominent challenger (Sen. Edward M. Kennedy) for renomination the next year.

Then comes the three-way tie for seventh. Along with President Bush's 2005 come Harry S. Truman's 1948 (when his party split apart and he faced challenges from right and left) and Mr. Truman's 1950 (when the Korean War began amid questions about the president's competence and mastery).

"Truman had a positive response and overcame many of his difficulties," says L. Sandy Maisel, a Colby College political scientist. "It's too soon to tell how Bush will respond to the problems of this year. Bush can respond and learn from this year or hunker down."

Three bad years round out the Dirty Dozen. It's hard to ignore 1937, when Franklin D. Roosevelt lost his court-packing scheme; or 1986, when Ronald Reagan struggled through the Iran-Contra scandal (though the year was partially salvaged by the passage of Mr. Reagan's tax overhaul plan); or 1958, when Dwight D. Eisenhower had to absorb the embarrassment, and then agony, produced when it was revealed that his chief of staff, Sherman Adams, accepted a vicuna coat and other gifts from a Boston businessman. "I need him," President Eisenhower said. Mr. Adams resigned anyway.

In this context -- the resignation of a president, the onset of a major economic depression, the failure to win approval of a vital treaty, the heartbreak of being driven from office and being physically and emotionally broken by the stresses of office -- President Bush's problems in 2005 don't seem so terrible, or at least not so hopeless. But as one of his predecessors, Lyndon Johnson, once said about himself, he's the only president we've got -- and for the time being his problems are our problems. That's the beauty, and the burden, of the presidency, even in a very bad year.

Copyright 2005 The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

David Shribman

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