Over the years, I’ve probably learned as much, if not more, from George Will as from any columnist or political commentator. These days, his antipathy towards the U.S. president far exceeds mine, but I continue to learn from Will.
Unfortunately, there’s nothing to learn from Will’s latest contribution, in which he proclaims Trump the worst president in American history. The column is an embarrassment. I can’t say it’s the worst of the year. Perhaps Eugene Robinson has served up worse. I can say that Will’s column is the worst I have read this year.
Will bases his claim that Trump is the worst president in American history on his endorsement of Roy Moore for the Senate. Will has nothing to say about any policy decision, legislative proposal, or presidential appointment Trump has made.
Read any competent historical analysis of a presidency, though, and you will find the focus squarely on policy, legislation and, to a lesser degree, appointments. Senatorial endorsements won’t even be a footnote.
Thus, Will’s column cannot be taken seriously. Even if it were possible to give so low a rating to a president after only eleven months, it could not be done without an analysis of the substance of that presidency. Will’s column is devoid of such analysis. It smacks of hysteria.
Andrew Johnson is the president Will says Trump has replaced at the bottom of the heap. Like Trump, Johnson was an unpleasant fellow.
However, the disdain in which history holds Johnson isn’t based primarily on personal characteristics. Johnson was on the wrong side of one of the most momentous issues in American history — Reconstruction. James Buchanan — my nominee for worst president ever — botched the events that led to the Civil War.
Will cites nothing in Trump’s presidency remotely comparable to the failings of the Johnson and Buchanan presidencies. Rather, as noted, he relies almost entirely on the Roy Moore endorsement.
Will calls Moore a “credibly accused child molester.” These are weasel words.
What does it mean to be “credibly accused” of misconduct that allegedly occurred 38 years ago with no witnesses other than the accuser and the accused? It means that the accusation is not a physical impossibility or contradictory on its face and that it can’t be disproved (because it happened 38 years ago and there were no witnesses). That’s all.
A credible accusation is not necessarily a true accusation. It is an accusation that can be believed or disbelieved. If all of my witnesses who gave credible testimony had been believed, I would never have lost a case.
Bill Clinton was truthfully accused of sexual misconduct while in office and credibly accused of rape. Under Will’s analysis — divorced as it from substantive presidential policy — why would Trump’s endorsement of Moore support a claim that Trump is a worse president than Clinton?
Will cites “the Everest of evidence” against Moore. But nearly all of that mountain consists of evidence that Moore dated teenagers. That’s bad form, but not criminality. Will makes no attempt to show that it should disqualify Moore from holding public office.
Does merely endorsing someone who, when he was in his early 30s, dated teenagers make Trump a bad president? If so, why wouldn’t John Tyler be worse? In his mid-50s, he began courting a teenager who, two years later, became his second wife.
Will cites Moore’s removal from the Alabama Supreme Court for refusing to follow dictates of the U.S. Supreme Court. Here, Will is on firmer ground.
Moore’s refusals are disturbing and arguably “disqualifying” (as Will says) when it comes to holding public office. If Trump himself defied court orders, we would find ourselves in a constitutional crisis, and the claim that Trump is our worst president would be more plausible. But merely endorsing a Senate candidate who defied court orders doesn’t get us to that point.
Indeed, Andrew Jackson was said (erroneously) to have defied a Supreme Court ruling. Though this claim was once widely credited, it never caused historians to rate him our worst president.
Will’s column is marred by his unwillingness to consider why a president might endorse an unsavory candidate for the Senate. It’s easy for a pundit to say that Roy Moore is unfit for the Senate and therefore should not be supported.
But a president has an agenda to enact and nominees — including, quite likely, a Supreme Court Justice in the case of this president — to get confirmed. A president should therefore weigh the demerits of a Senate candidate from his party against the harm to his substantive agenda — i.e., the harm to the United States, as the president sees it — of having the Senate seat in question fall into the hands of the opposing party. Especially where, as here, that party frequently votes with unanimity against the most important parts of the president’s agenda.
It’s one thing to say that Trump erred in this weighing process. It’s another thing — an absurd one — to make this error (if that’s what it was) the centerpiece of a claim that Trump, eleven months into his presidency, is our worst president ever.
Pundits judge. Historians judge too, but first they try to understand. Will’s attack on Trump is that of an irate pundit, not a historian or even a pundit displaying historical sense.