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A no good, miserable year

There's no doubt that this was a very bad year for President Bush. The war in Iraq churned on, the president faced questions about civil liberties and torture, his poll numbers plummeted and members of his own party grew ever more restless.

But consider a Dirty Dozen of terrible years for presidents. How does 2005 rank in the parade of horrors?

Let's agree that the worst year any president ever had was 1861. First the Union fell apart, then Fort Sumter was surrendered, then Confederate Gens. P.G.T. Beauregard, Joseph E. Johnston and Stonewall Jackson defeated Union forces at Bull Run. The situation was desperate.

But if we look only at modern time (and for convenience, let's define that as beginning with the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt in 1901), and if we omit years in which the presidents themselves died (Warren G. Harding in 1923, Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945 and John F. Kennedy in 1963) and also omit years of catastrophes from abroad (Pearl Harbor removing 1941 from consideration, the al-Qaida attacks removing 2001 from contention), then what emerges are a dozen truly awful years for presidents. In my calculations, Bush's 2005 is tied for seventh with two years of Harry S. Truman's presidency.

The worst year any president ever had in modern times was 1974, when Richard M. Nixon was forced to resign the White House after the Watergate scandals. Things don't get much worse than that.

My nominee for second-worst year is 1929, when Herbert Hoover suffered the ignominy of the Great Depression and watched millions of Americans lose their jobs, their homes, their families and their hopes.

Then comes 1919, when Woodrow Wilson won the Nobel Peace Prize but lost the prize that would have defined his life: Senate approval of the Versailles Treaty with its provision for a League of Nations. In his drive to win the treaty and the league, Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke and never fully recovered.

Fourth place belongs to 1968 and the tragedy of Lyndon Johnson. In this horrible year, the Tet offensive convinced millions of Americans that the Vietnam War could not be won; the "Dump Johnson" movement prevailed when the president announced on March 31 he would not run for another term; and the nation seemed to spin out of control when both the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated, and there was rioting in the streets of Chicago during the Democratic National Convention.

Bill Clinton claims the fifth-worst year, 1998 -- the year he was impeached for charges growing out of the affair he had with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. He was acquitted in 1999 in the Senate, but Clinton remains only the second president to be impeached.

In sixth place is 1979, the year Jimmy Carter seemed helpless as Iranian radicals seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took American diplomats hostage, struggled with an energy crisis and lost control of his own party, ensuring that he would have a prominent challenger (Sen. Edward M. Kennedy) for renomination in 1980.

Then comes the three-way tie for seventh. Along with President Bush's 2005 come Truman's 1948 (when his party split apart and he faced challenges from right and left) and Truman's 1950 (when the Korean War began amid questions about Truman's competence).

To round out the Dirty Dozen, it's hard to ignore 1937, when Franklin D. Roosevelt lost his court-packing scheme; or 1986, when Ronald Reagan struggled through the Iran-Contra scandal; or 1958, when Dwight D. Eisenhower had to absorb the embarrassment produced when it was revealed that his chief of staff, Sherman Adams, accepted gifts from a Boston businessman.

In this context President Bush's problems in 2005 don't seem quite so terrible, or at least not so hopeless. But as Lyndon Johnson once said about himself, he's the only president we've got -- and for the time being, his problems are our problems. That's the beauty, and the burden, of the presidency, even in a very bad year.

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