Pairing Presidents: G. W. Bush and Franklin Pierce


George W. Bush and Franklin Pierce rank among the biggest disgraces in American history. It is a testament to our republic that we survived them. Many scholars would suggest a Bush/James Buchanan comparison, but I see Pierce as more actively inept than the do-nothing Buchanan.

How they are similar:

Bush is a Texan; Pierce was from New Hampshire, but each was sympathetic to some of the worst Bad White Boy behavior the South could muster. Franklin Pierce's secretary of war was none other than Jefferson Davis, its own statement about his views. Pierce was an active racist who supported slavery and its expansion. He wasn't in office when the farcical Lecompton Constitution was recognized in Kansas Territory, but there's no question he would have accepted it. As it was, he saw the anti-slavery (and more representative) government in Lawrence as traitors. If you're not versed in this, the point is that Pierce's actions exacerbated the tensions that led to the Civil War. At every step of the way, Pierce listened to the pro-slavery advocates that dominated his Cabinet. The 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act was a lousy compromise that destroyed the Whig party, hastened the rise of the Republican Party, spawned the emergence of John Brown, and led to bloodshed in the two territories that is now viewed as a "shadow war" presaging the Civil War. Pierce vigorously enforced the Fugitive Slave Act. He was careful with his language, but he was racist in deed and disposition.

The same is true of Bush. Like Pierce, his actions spoke louder than hollow words such as his claim to be a "compassionate conservative." When Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, affluent white communities received immediate aid; black communities waited. Nor did he have sympathy for Latinos; instead he spoke of vigorous immigration enforcement, a wall on the Mexican border, and a "merit" system for green cards; he rejected amnesty for longtime illegal residents. His overall lack of compassion led to urban protests that are among the largest in U.S. history.

Bush's Kansas was Iraq. After displaying calm leadership after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Bush squandered the international goodwill present on September 12. His immediate goal of overthrowing the Taliban government of Afghanistan and its Al-Qaeda allies was applauded, given their involvement in 9/11, but the Bush deployment merely chased both groups underground; both continue to disrupt the region and export terrorism. More baffling was Bush's decision to declare North Korea, Iran, and Iraq as an Axis of Evil. This was a complete fabrication, as was Bush's decision to invade Iraq on the mythical grounds that it possessed weapons of mass destruction. Bush sucked the United States into a quagmire from which it is yet to extricate itself. His equivalent of Jefferson Davis: his hawkish, acerbic, and Machiavellian vice president Dick Cheney. His near equal was his first secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, who was eventually driven from office.

Neither Pierce nor Bush tolerated dissent. Under Pierce, anti-slavery advocates found themselves on the defensive. Things got so bad that Senator Charles Sumner was brutally attacked in the halls of Congress by S.C. Representative Preston Brooks and nearly died of his injuries. Under Bush, the U.S. became a national security state–perhaps a necessary precaution against terrorism, but an overreach that trampled free speech, ostracized dissenters in general, indiscriminately spied on American citizens, and was used to isolate those who disagreed with Bush on anything.

Pierce favored imperialist expansionism such as the actions of William Walker. These individuals sought to exert control in Latin America and expand slavery there. Bush did not engage in anything so crude, but his foreign policy was marked by an aggressive unilateralism that placed the United States above the views of the United Nations, NATO, or international human rights standards. Bush authorized the use of waterboarding of suspected terrorists and placed those in US custody in places such as Guantanamo outside of both international and domestic legal protections. He also cancelled previously accepted treaties, such as the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia. Nor was he supportive of UN programs to reduce AIDS. Foreign respect for the United States reached historic lows under Bush.

Both men appointed archconservatives to the Supreme Court: Alabama slaveholder John Archibald Campbell by Pierce; Samuel Alito and John Roberts by Bush.  

How they were different:

Pierce was more intelligent than Bush, but the biggest differences lay in domestic politics. Pierce isn't remembered for much on this score, but the economy remained stable under him. Bush oversaw an economic crisis following the collapse of the housing market and the economy did not recover until after Bush left office. His own deficit spending was partly to blame. He inherited a surplus from Clinton and squandered it on indiscriminate spending on the military and national security. Tax cuts also hurt. Mainly, Bush inspired little confidence for investors. His plan to privatize Social Security is now viewed as a disaster narrowly averted when Congress failed to enact it.

Bush left behind a host of questionable domestic bills, including the controversial No Child Left Behind Act that led to increased testing of students. He vetoed SCHIP, which expanded medical coverage to children when Barack Obama signed it into law. Bush was anti-science (see his views on stem cell research) and weak on the environment. His energy plan consisted largely of drilling for more oil until late in his second term. Evangelical views shaped his views on abortion, women's rights, school curricula, and other issues.

Scholars' rankings (of 44):

Scholars currently rate Pierce as number 41 and Bush as 34. The Pierce rating is about right, but look for Bush to plummet. Once the final Obama factoring takes place, I'd rank Pierce 43 and Bush 42–enough stink to open a waste facility. Conservatives nostalgic for Bush are delusional.

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