On a bleak January morning, Meridian Hill Park is almost deserted - its fountains drained, its lawns snow-fenced off, the only visible human a shivering man walking his dog. Neither of them pauses to examine the monument to James Buchanan. But then, no one does.
Buchanan is generally accounted to be the worst American president. A northerner who supported slavery, the 15th president enthusiastically endorsed - and probably influenced - the Supreme Court's decision in the Dred Scott case, which affirmed and expanded the rights of slave owners. He fought to admit Kansas as a slave state. He mishandled the financial panic of 1857. And as southern states began seceding from the union, he declared he had no legal right to stop them. His successor, Abraham Lincoln, took a very different approach.
Still, every president gets a statue, and Buchanan's is in Meridian Hill Park. Where will they put the statue for George W. Bush?
Harry Reid, Democratic majority leader in the Senate, has dubbed Mr. Bush "the worst president we have ever had." That's not true. Buchanan let the republic slide into civil war. Rutherford B. Hayes abandoned Reconstruction, entrenching Jim Crow in the South. Herbert Hoover decided that the best way to handle the Depression was to let economic nature take its course.
Mr. Bush had real accomplishments. He made the U.S. a leader in the fight against HIV-AIDS and other diseases in Africa. He enacted landmark reform in public education. He extended Medicare to include prescriptions for seniors. And he will be remembered most favourably for what didn't happen: There were no terrorist attacks on U.S. soil after 9/11.
But he also will be remembered for Iraq, for Katrina, for Guantanamo, for Wall Street. For these, he will forever rank among the least of presidents.
Mr. Bush's greatest sin, the reason his statue should be consigned to someplace obscure, was undermining the Constitution he swore to uphold. It is intolerable that, on his watch and with his knowledge, U.S. officials tortured prisoners to extract information, suspected terrorists were held on U.S. soil without recourse to habeas corpus or a fair trial, and the Justice Department was debased.
The defining moment of the Bush presidency will always be the night that Alberto Gonzales and Andrew Card, then members of the White House staff, weaselled their way to the beside of the gravely ill John Ashcroft, trying to get the attorney-general to authorize the extension of a secret warrantless domestic wiretap program. Mr. Ashcroft, though heavily medicated, refused to sign, and the program, at least in that form, died.
Worst of all was Mr. Bush's cheerfulness. Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon at least had the good grace to visibly suffer during the collapse of their presidencies. But Mr. Bush sailed through his many calamities unfazed, bestowing nicknames on all and sundry, his trademark smirk securely in place till the end.
Mr. Bush likes to invoke Harry Truman, who was deeply unpopular when he left office but is now ranked among the best of presidents. For Mr. Bush's reputation to be similarly revived in hindsight, historians will have to conclude that it was wise for the U.S. to invade Iraq on what turned out to be the false pretext that Saddam Hussein was concocting weapons of mass destruction; that the deregulation of the financial services market accelerated by his administration did not really contribute to this crushing recession; that the many presidentially directed violations of the rule of law were warranted.
Ain't gonna happen. What will happen is that the Obama administration will dismantle as much of the Bush legacy as possible, and everyone will just try to forget about the rest. The past eight years will be considered lost. Somewhere, probably in Texas, someone will decide it would be a good idea to name a high school after the 43rd president, or a toll road. There will be a presidential library and a presidential portrait, and someone will commission a statue.
But scholars will visit that library to research What Went Wrong, that portrait will never grace a future president's Oval Office, and that statue will be consigned to a little-known park. It's as much as the outgoing president can expect, and more than he deserves.