Every once in a while, George W. Bush emerges from political exile and for a brief moment his two terms in office don’t seem so bad — at least compared to the guy who currently has the job.
This week, for example, Bush put out a video message calling on Americans, in the face of a deadly pandemic, to put aside partisanship and remember that “we rise or fall together,” leading to a momentary spasm of praise for the 43rd president.
Whenever these bouts of nostalgic amnesia occur I consider it my duty to remind people that Bush was a singularly terrible president. He started a disastrous war in Iraq, presided over the meltdown of the global economy, utilized torture, did little to combat climate change, badly mishandled Hurricane Katrina, and weakened America both at home and abroad. Only Andrew Johnson can reasonably rank as a worse president than Bush. As I wrote a few years ago, “Trump will have his work cut out for him if he wants to leave the country in as great a shambles as Bush did.”
Well Mr. President, congratulations! With your handling of the coronavirus pandemic you’ve officially passed Bush. You’re the worst president ever — and you did it all in just one term!
The major piece missing from Trump’s resume of presidential failure was a tragic and needless loss of life. The 4,500 American soldiers and at least 100,000 Iraqis killed in the Iraq War always put Bush in a rarefied air of awfulness.
While Trump cannot fully be held responsible for the more than 75,000 Americans who have died from COVID-19, there’s little doubt that his catastrophic response to the pandemic contributed to the still-rising death toll. When all is said and done, the number of dead is likely to surpass the number of those killed in the Iraq War. At least with that conflict, one could point to the fact that Iraq rid itself of Saddam Hussein. There’s no silver lining to be found with the coronavirus.
The other mark in Trump’s favor was that his presidency has been defined by a strong and growing economy, which contrasted with the severe recession and dismal job creation record that Bush bequeathed to the nation. That train has, of course, left the station now that 33 million Americans have filed for unemployment insurance in just a few weeks and White House officials are predicting the unemployment rate could soon top 20 percent.
For all of W’s faults, he could always point to the fact that his HIV/AIDS initiative has saved millions of lives around the world. There’s clearly nothing in Trump’s record that compares, especially since, as president, he has repeatedly proposed severe cuts to global health programs and has tried for years to take health insurance away from millions of Americans.
Bush was also never impeached by Congress, and he certainly never pressured a foreign government to dig up dirt on his political enemies.
To Bush’s credit he used the bully pulpit to speak out against xenophobia and anti-Muslim attitudes that took root after 9/11 (though he did endorse a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage). Trump has charted a very different course, by constantly mining bigotry, spewing hatred, and dividing Americans.
In fact, there’s no better example of Trump’s particularly horrendous character than his response to Bush’s plea for national unity. Rather than echo W’s words, Trump criticized the former president for not defending him during the impeachment trial earlier this year and being “nowhere to be found in speaking up against the greatest Hoax in American history!”
Bush, who said Americans “can find ways to be present in the lives of others to ease their anxiety, and share their burdens” was attacked by a president who is incapable of empathizing with the anxiety of others, appreciating their burdens, or thinking about anything other than himself and his fragile ego. For Trump everything is always and forever about him.
Indeed, this is precisely what has made the coronavirus the greatest failure of presidential leadership in the nation’s history. The occupant of the Oval Office doesn’t just have a duty to coordinate the federal government’s response to emergencies — a duty Trump has utterly failed to meet. He or she has a responsibility to serve as the conscience of the nation, to help the country grieve, to bring the country together behind a shared set of unifying principles, and to preach a message of resilience and renewal. Ronald Reagan did it after the Challenger explosion; Bill Clinton did it after Oklahoma City; and Barack Obama did it after Sandy Hook and Charleston.
Despite his many faults, even one of the worst presidents to ever hold the office appreciates this basic, essential responsibility of the presidency. For Donald Trump, the new occupant of the presidential cellar, it’s beyond his meager capabilities.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.