Is Biden—Or Any President—The Essence of Evil? | Opinion

It's easy, perhaps even inevitable, to describe Joe Biden's handling of the Afghanistan withdrawal as reckless, misguided and utterly inept.

But is it appropriate, or constructive, to classify the president himself—or any of his predecessors, for that matter—as the very essence of "evil?"

That's the uncomfortable question raised by a longtime friend of mine and a thoughtful patriot who sent an email newsletter to his thousands of subscribers, using Biden to illustrate the malevolent power of wickedness.

In the context of sharing "what I'm pondering and exploring," this distraught commentator flatly declared:

The surrender of Kabul is EVIL. Joe Biden is EVIL...What is Evil? It's seeing that a Decision made has dramatic and drastic consequences (even if unintended) and REFUSING to admit I am Wrong. He is Wrong. He refuses to admit this. Lives are in peril and are being lost. The world is a less safe place because of an old goat.... Evil is unleashed into the World. Its source is unfortunately from the place seen by Billions as a Shining City of the Hill.... Biden failed humanity. He is a hapless puppy.

This passage seems to revel in its own contradictions, simultaneously deriding the leader of the free world as an "old goat" and a "hapless puppy."

More seriously, such full-throated denunciations trivialize the grave, iniquitous quality they mean to evoke. Common dictionary definitions of "evil" deploy phrases like "profound wickedness and immorality" along with synonyms such as "depraved," "vicious," "corrupt," "base," "vile," "nefarious" and "pernicious." Human history has produced numerous figures who richly earned such adjectives, but if we squander the designation "evil" on the bumbling, confused and ineffective chief executive of an unmistakably benign republic, then what words do we reserve for Stalin, Hitler, Mao, bin Laden and other mass murderers?

Joe Biden
US President Joe Biden speaks on national security with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison in East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on September 15, 2021. Brendan SMIALOWSKI / AFP/Getty Images

The modern trend of rating American presidents, from the greatest heroes to the most conspicuous embarrassments, illustrates the folly in designating any of these elected leaders as evil incarnate. From Arthur Schlesinger Sr.'s groundbreaking 1948 poll of presidential historians to a 2021 CSPAN survey of relative stature, more than a dozen studies have employed the same categories to rank our leaders: Great, Near-Great, Above Average, Below Average, with the lowest status reserved for "Failures" or, on occasion, "The Ten Worst." But no one has ever suggested reserving a below-basement, dungeon chamber for the "nefarious," "wicked," "depraved" or outright "evil."

The consistent cellar dweller in recent years—James Buchanan, our 15th president—has claimed the lowest ranking since a Wall Street Journal poll in 2005, but even his undeniably awful presidency hardly qualifies "Old Buck" as a textbook enemy of humanity. He made a series of awful mistakes—endorsing, and even encouraging, the Dred Scott decision in which the Supreme Court ruled that Black people could never qualify as citizens. At the end of his term, he displayed timorous passivity while the Southern states seceded, making the bloody conflict that followed all but inevitable.

But to blame Buchanan primarily for the Civil War would be to ignore his benevolent intentions (he meant to preserve the union at all costs) as well as the genuinely evil aims of the Southern "fire-eaters" who shattered the federal union in order to make slavery a permanent, unassailable institution.

None of our 46 presidents deserves the ultimate crown of ignominious wickedness because, despite the protestations of some of today's most radical historians, America itself has never embraced the cause of oppression or corruption. It has, however imperfectly, kept faith with the nobler ideals of its founding. For a president to abandon those values altogether would require an authentically treasonous rejection of the nation herself—a level of betrayal that none of our chief executives even approached, whatever their personal shortcomings or presidential blunders. Constitutional mechanisms have protected us from outrageous arrogations of power more reliably than the character of frequently flawed office holders.

In fact, the endurance of those constitutional norms requires that we refuse to apply toxic terms like "evil" to our political rivals, no matter how strongly we may oppose their policies. Successful government in the United States has always demanded a spirit of comity and a willingness to compromise—qualities profoundly undermined by reckless demonization of the other side.

John Adams, the first president to occupy the White House in the new federal capital in Washington, composed a simple prayer in hope that his successors would avoid such paralyzing polarization. On November 2, 1800—his first night in the still unfinished Executive Mansion—Adams wrote home to his wife, Abigail: "I pray Heaven to bestow the best of Blessings on this House and all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise Men ever rule under this roof."

Alas, some of the inhabitants who followed may have lacked the levels of wisdom and honesty that the Founders expected. But none of them raised serious suspicions that the White House had become the "source" from which "Evil is unleashed into the World."

In the last year of World War II, Franklin Roosevelt ordered that Adams' words be carved, as a permanent reminder, into the stone mantelpiece in the State Dining Room. Seventy-six years later, however rocky the start of the Biden presidency, we shouldn't allow those above-the-fireplace sentiments of the second president's prayer to go up in smoke.

Michael Medved hosts a daily radio talk show and is author, most recently, of God's Hand On America: Divine Providence in the Modern Era. Follow him on Twitter: @MedvedSHOW.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.