Earlier this year Helen Thomas, a White House correspondent since the Kennedy administration, declared George W. Bush "the worst president in all of American history." It's quite an accusation from someone who's covered nine of the little monsters, especially since she hasn't traditionally been known as a mindless partisan. (Thomas is a liberal, but she regularly grilled Bush's Democratic predecessor as well.) But the main thing the comment shows is that no one is incapable of losing her perspective. The worst? In all history? Does Thomas know what some of those presidents did?
You heard the same sort of comments under Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan: The man in charge was not merely bad, opponents crowed; he's the worst ever. You'd think it would take a real Nero to earn that title even before his administration concluded, but of course the point isn't to render a historical judgment. I doubt most of the accusers could name even half the presidents, and I'm sure many of them were already declaring Bush or Clinton the lowest executive before he was even sworn in. This isn't even about ideological disagreement—I don't like either president, but I've never claimed either was the worst in history or even in my lifetime. It's a matter of visceral reaction.
The usual explanation for that reaction has something to do with values: Clinton allegedly represents the decadent '60s, while Bush is supposed to be both the sanctimonious religious conservative that liberals hated when they were kids and the smug frat boy they couldn't stand in college. But the picture breaks down on closer examination. Clinton doesn't make a very convincing Yippie, and it was he, not Bush, who brought the worst stereotypes about frat boy behavior to the White House. Meanwhile, Bush's youthful behavior wasn't much more wholesome than Clinton's—though I wouldn't want to ignore the extent to which you can wipe that slate clean, in many Americans' eyes, by being born again.
The Clinton people hate and the Bush people hate are opposites in a more fundamental, archetypal way. Clinton's most dislikable quality is his egocentric ambition; he's the classic careerist, alternately brown-nosing and back-stabbing as he ascends a hierarchy. Bush is the opposite: the annoying rich boy who gets what he wants without trying. Born into a different family, he'd be a failure. Instead, he runs the country.
Clinton is despised for his ambitions and, closely related, his appetites. (Political ambition, after all, is simply an appetite for power.) Bush is despised for his connections, and the unearned wealth that they've brought him. Clinton caught flack for not being presidential; Bush's detractors say he isn't really president. The conspiracy theories that surround each man merely sharpen the focus. The people who find these stories easy to believe are the people with particular views about each president's character. Clinton becomes not just a figurative back-stabber but a literal murderer; Bush's family ties save him not just from bankruptcy but from jail.
There are two years left in Bush's term, and a chance for him to extend it by another four. That's a lot of time, and it's always possible that he'll spend it proving he's the worst president after all. But he faces some stiff competition—and no, it isn't from Clinton.