The Question of Polk

Having spent years supporting the Bush administration’s largest foreign policy disaster (Iraq), and it’s largest hoped-for domestic policy disaster (dismantling Social Security), the Washington Post opinion section has been running a lot of articles lately on the question of exactly how bad a president Bush is in historical terms. Eric Foner says Bush is the worst ever, but also in some ways comparable to James K. Polk who “should be remembered primarily for launching that unprovoked attack on Mexico and seizing one-third of its territory for the United States.” Michael Lind, by contrast, sees four presidents worse than Bush — James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon and dark-horse candidate James Madison. Polk isn’t in the conversation.

Douglas Brinkley marks Bush down as the worst ever and observes of Polk that his war “was a success, even if the pretext was immoral. On virtually every presidential rating poll, Polk is deemed a ‘near great’ president.” Similarly, “History chalks up Mr. McKinley’s War as a U.S. win, and he also polls favorably as a ‘near great’ president.” Robert Farley likewise agrees that “at least James K. Polk’s deceptive and unprovoked war was successful.” They Might Be Giants, famously, are Polk fans:

In four short years he met his every goal
He seized the whole southwest from Mexico
Made sure the tarriffs fell
And made the English sell the Oregon territory
He built an independent treasury
Having done all this he sought no second term

At the end of the day, Polk’s hard to evaluate just because it’s so hard to imagine a world in which the United States doesn’t extend from sea to shining sea.