CBS Cites Liberal Historians to Label Bush ‘Worst President in American History’

On CBS’s Sunday Morning, correspondent Thalia Assuras examined President Bush’s historical legacy: "On January 20th, 2001, George Walker Bush took the oath of office as the 43rd president of the United States. His presidency and the future, a blank slate...Before the Iraq war. Before Katrina swept ashore. Before the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression."

Assuras cited two historians in her report, both of whom labeled Bush one of the nation’s worst presidents. She first turned to historian Douglas Brinkley, who declared: "I think it's safe to say that President Bush is going to be seen as the very bottom-rung of American presidents...As a judicial historian looking at what's occurred on his watch, it is almost void of genuine accomplishment." The other historian Assuras included in her report was Joseph Ellis, who said of Bush: "I think that George Bush might very well be the worst president in American history...He's unusual. Most two-term presidents have a mixed record...Bush has nothing on the positive side, virtually nothing."

Following these Bush-bashing historical assessments, Assuras exclaimed: "And that's not a minority opinion. In a 2006 Siena College survey of 744 history professors, 82 percent rated President Bush below average or a failure. Last April, in an informal poll by George Mason University of 109 historians, Mr. Bush fared even worse; 98 percent considered him a failed president. Sixty-one percent judged him, as Ellis does, one of the worst in American history."

In contrast to his opinion of Bush, Brinkley managed to find positive words for Jimmy Carter in his 1998 biography of the former president, entitled: "The Unfinished Presidency: Jimmy Carter’s Journey Beyond the White House." In the first chapter, Brinkley described Carter this way: "In fact, although his critics saw him as self-righteous, Carter was the most principled American president since Harry Truman – and nowhere was his morality on clearer display than in his insistence that human rights be a cardinal principle of global governance." During the Sunday Morning story, Brinkley attacked Bush on the same issues: "I think President Bush was a good man so infuriated and angered by 9/11 that he put on his ideological blinders and forgot that we have other things we represent -- civil liberties here at home, a Constitution, global human rights. That he started disliking the world community, alienated allies for no reason."

While some may point to Bush preventing another terrorist attack after September 11th, in a 2006 New York Times editorial, Ellis saw the 9/11 attacks as a mere footnote in American history: "...it defies reason and experience to make Sept. 11 the defining influence on our foreign and domestic policy. History suggests that we have faced greater challenges and triumphed, and that overreaction is a greater danger than complacency." In the CBS story, Ellis argued: "John Adams, the second president, said that there's one unforgivable sin that no president will ever be forgiven, and that is to put the country into an unnecessary war. I think that Iraq has proven to be an unnecessary war, and will appear to be more unnecessary as time goes on."

The only positive assessments of Bush’s legacy in the report came from former Bush advisors Dan Bartlett and David Frum. No historians who viewed Bush positively were featured.

Near the end of the segment, Assuras wondered: "So is President Bush's current low rating among historians just liberal bias?" Assuras quickly followed: "...Douglas Brinkley doesn't think so." Brinkley explained: "When I'm sitting here telling you that Ronald Reagan and, you know, Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower were outstanding presidents, these are Republicans. I'm telling you, Ronald Reagan was one of the five greatest presidents in American history. I'm not saying that because I'm a liberal. I'm just saying it because it's a fact. But you have to then accept when I'm telling you George Bush is one of the five worst presidents in American history, it's not because I want to stick it to him. He simply failed on the big questions of his day." Despite Brinkley's denial of any political bias, in 2004, he wrote: "Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War."

Here is the full transcript of the segment:

9:01AM TEASE:

CHARLES OSGOOD: Although George W. Bush still has nine days to go as president, historians are already assessing the Bush legacy, comparing him to his predecessors. As Thalia Assuras will show us this morning, there is some disagreement about that.

THALIA ASSURAS: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt -- all are considered among America's greatest presidents. After eight years, how will George W. Bush fit in?

DAN BARTLETT: This was a man who met his moment, in many respects, as a leader.

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY: I think it's safe to say that President Bush is going to be seen as the very bottom-rung of American presidents.

ASSURAS: Later on Sunday Morning, how the Bush presidency might look through the long lens of history.

9:32AM SEGMENT:

CHARLES OSGOOD: Just nine days to go now until Inauguration Day, and the transition of power. The Bush Administration will be history. How will history assess the Bush legacy? Thalia Assuras starts by looking back to his first inaugural eight years ago.

GEORGE W. BUSH: I, George Walker Bush, do solemnly swear-

WILLIAM REHNQUIST: That I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States.

BUSH: That I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States.

REHNQUIST: And will to the best of my ability-

BUSH: And will to the best of my ability.

THALIA ASSURAS: As always, it was a day for new beginnings.

BUSH: Preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.

REHNQUIST: So help me God.

BUSH: So help me God.

ASSURAS: On January 20th, 2001, George Walker Bush took the oath of office as the 43rd president of the United States. His presidency and the future, a blank slate. That was before this.

[FOOTAGE OF 9/11]

BUSH: Terrorists attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America.

ASSURAS: Before the Iraq war. Before Katrina swept ashore. Before the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. In nine days, after eight turbulent years, George Bush will leave here and leave behind a radically different country and a changed world. And the wrangling will officially begin over the Bush legacy, how this presidency will be viewed through the long lens of history.

DAN BARTLETT [FORMER BUSH ADVISOR]: I think he'll be able to look himself in the mirror when he is done and say, 'I gave it my best. I made decisions based on principle.'

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY [HISTORIAN]: As a judicial historian looking at what's occurred on his watch, it is almost void of genuine accomplishment.

DAVID FRUM [FORMER BUSH SPEECH WRITER]: In foreign policy, where he has taken so much criticism, I think the assessment of history will be surprisingly positive.

JOSEPH ELLIS [HISTORIAN]: I think that George Bush might very well be the worst president in American history.

ASSURAS: Because today's historians, including Pulitzer Prize winner Joseph Ellis, get to write the first draft, the Bush legacy seems to be in for a bumpy start.

ELLIS: He's unusual. Most two-term presidents have a mixed record. And -- Lyndon Johnson, one of the greatest achievements in 20th century was the civil rights legislation. On the other hand, the extraordinary tragedy of Vietnam. Even Richard Nixon opened the door to China, has foreign policy credentials. Bush has nothing on the positive side, virtually nothing.

ASSURAS: And that's not a minority opinion. In a 2006 Siena College survey of 744 history professors, 82 percent rated President Bush below average or a failure. Last April, in an informal poll by George Mason University of 109 historians, Mr. Bush fared even worse; 98 percent considered him a failed president. Sixty-one percent judged him, as Ellis does, one of the worst in American history.

ELLIS: John Adams, the second president, said that there's one unforgivable sin that no president will ever be forgiven, and that is to put the country into an unnecessary war. I think that Iraq has proven to be an unnecessary war, and will appear to be more unnecessary as time goes on.

ASSURAS: Is the Iraq war the defining component of his presidency?

BOB WOODWARD [WASHINGTON POST REPORTER]: Well, the Iraq war is the defining variable because it was his decision. No one has the illusion that a president is commander in chief of the economy. He is not. He is commander in chief of the military. And in the end, you wind up getting judged and held accountable for what you're in charge of.

ASSURAS: Reporter Bob Woodward has written four books on the Bush presidency.

WOODWARD: I've interviewed him for close to 11 hours. One of the questions I asked him was about how history would look at his Iraq war. And he rightly says we won't know, we'll all be dead. It may look very different in 50 years. Is there democracy, more stability? If that's the case, it's quite possible historians who are measuring that legacy will look back on it and say he did fine.

FRUM: When we look around the world, we see all sorts of quiet successes for the United States over the past eight years.

ASSURAS: David Frum is a former Bush speech writer, now with the American Enterprise Institute. Regardless of how Iraq turns out, he says, it's not the only issue on the table.

FRUM: We have this rising power of China, that has shown a lot of aggression. The Bush Administration has managed to avoid confrontation with China, to open the way to a peaceful and normal future for China. And where there have been new governments, from Japan, to South Korea, to Germany, to France, each change of power has brought to power a more friendly government to the United States.

BUSH: One size does not fit all when it comes to educating the children in America.

ASSURAS: On the domestic side, President Bush claims credit for the No Child Left Behind Act, the prescription drug benefit, and putting a conservative stamp on the federal courts. He's recognized for progress fighting AIDS in Africa. And just last week he set aside a huge tract of the Pacific as a protected wildlife area. Opinions vary on the impact of these and other programs, but the consensus is Bush's legacy will largely rest on one event: 9/11 and his response to the attacks.

BARTLETT: At the eye of the storm, he was a very calm person making very methodical decisions. This was a man who met his moment, in many respects, as a leader.

ASSURAS: Dan Bartlett, now a CBS News consultant, was President Bush's communications director and was with him during the attacks.

BUSH: Thank you for your hard work. Thank you for making the nation proud.

ASSURAS: Mr. Bush's greatest legacy, he believes, is that there have been no more attacks on US soil since 9/11.

BARTLETT: Which, at the time, was not something that was considered to be possible. Many people thought it was only inevitable that the terrorists who want to do harm to our country would be successful.

BRINKLEY: I think President Bush was a good man so infuriated and angered by 9/11 that he put on his ideological blinders and forgot that we have other things we represent -- civil liberties here at home, a Constitution, global human rights. That he started disliking the world community, alienated allies for no reason.

ASSURAS: Presidential historian Douglas Brinkley, also a CBS consultant, sees 9/11 as a different kind of turning point.

BRINKLEY: But he put all the chips on Iraq, Took the entire agenda of a new century and pushed it all on -- played it on one number.

BUSH: My fellow Americans, major combat operations in Iraq have ended, in the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.

BRINKLEY: The presidents that operate with certainty can be great presidents. But you better be right. To be certain and be wrong is a disaster.

ASSURAS: There is a handful of presidents usually included in the top tier of historical rankings, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt. So where will George Bush fit in? Dan Bartlett believes the debate is still too tinged with partisan politics for any objective measure.

BARTLETT: And I think the politics of the moment -- and they've gotten very acrimonious -- will slowly fade, and then you can have a more dispassionate view of what did this person achieve. What did -- was he trying to do, and was that actually right? My sense is it's going to be a more favorable picture.

ASSURAS: So is President Bush's current low rating among historians just liberal bias? Rice University's Douglas Brinkley doesn't think so.

BRINKLEY: When I'm sitting here telling you that Ronald Reagan and, you know, Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower were outstanding presidents, these are Republicans. I'm telling you, Ronald Reagan was one of the five greatest presidents in American history. I'm not saying that because I'm a liberal. I'm just saying it because it's a fact. But you have to then accept when I'm telling you George Bush is one of the five worst presidents in American history, it's not because I want to stick it to him. He simply failed on the big questions of his day.

BUSH: I'm not going to be around to see the final history written on my administration. The truth is that history's verdict takes time to reveal itself.

WOODWARD: In his mind, he sees himself a little bit like Harry Truman or Abraham Lincoln. Misunderstood in their time. And, you know, we're going to have to go to another time to get a really solid historical judgment of that. And he's right when he says we'll all be dead. We won't know.

Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen is a News Analyst for MRC