This has been a good week for George W. Bush. The opening of his presidential library and museum at Southern Methodist University has led to a widespread reassessment of his administration’s record. Indeed, public-opinion polls show that Bush now has a 47 percent approval rating, up from the dismal 33 percent when he left office, and the same that President Obama now has.
The positive view, even the nice words about Bush spoken by President Obama at the dedication ceremony of the Bush Library, has not rubbed off on historians. History News Network — the leading website for academic historians — proclaims, “Historians Still Despise George W. Bush.”
Their judgment of Bush’s reign in office has little to do with a nuanced assessment of his presidency; rather, it has to do with their desire to show that they are leftists first and historians second.
The point was well-argued by historian Stephen F. Knott of the Naval War College in last Sunday’s Washington Post. As Knott writes, few historians are having second thoughts about the Bush presidency not because of actual facts or assessment of policy successes or failures, but because “far too many scholars revealed partisan bias and abandoned any pretense of objectivity in their rush to condemn the Bush presidency.”
Knott cites two of the most prominent attacks made against Bush while he was in the White House, the first by Princeton’s Sean Wilentz, and the second by Columbia University’s Eric Foner, a man far to the left of Wilentz. Both were bested in their attacks — vicious and unbalanced as they were — by TV’s most well-known “presidential historian” (whatever that is), Doug Brinkley, who wrote in 2006 that “it’s safe to bet that Bush will be forever handcuffed to the bottom rungs of the presidential ladder” and that Bush purposely tried to “brutalize his opponents.”
It is hard to realize, now that so many journalists who at the time hated Bush are now reevaluating their own biases, that the late Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. — always a partisan of the democratic left of the Democratic Party — actually wrote (as Knott writes) that “the Bush administration was purposefully ‘driv[ing] toward domination of the world,’ placing the constitutional system of separation of powers ‘under unprecedented, and at times, unbearable strain,’ and was intent on ‘outlawing debate.’”
Schlesinger’s intemperate and actually fairly crazy remarks reveal not the judgment of a historian, but that of a leftist partisan intent on scaring the public, just as the old communists used to do in the ’40s and early ’50s by saying that Harry S. Truman was a fascist.
No wonder that a historical panel held when Bush was in office found that he was a “war criminal” and a “McCarthyite,” all because of the measures he took to protect our national security. Now that Barack Obama has seen fit to continue implementation of the very measures Bush instituted and they condemned at the time, they have become very silent about this truth. Evidently when Obama does the same it is good; when he does things like put prisoners in Gitmo, use rendition, and engage in warrantless wiretapping, they are no longer measures that make the chief executive a war criminal. That designation is reserved only for Republicans they seek to demonize.
Professor Knott has enraged the academics with this conclusion:
George W. Bush’s low standing among academics reflects, in part, the rise of partisan scholarship: the use of history as ideology and as a political weapon, which means the corruption of history as history. Bush may not have been a great president; he may even be considered an average or below-average president, but he and — more important — the nation deserve better than this partisan rush to judgment.
He has also enraged the most left-wing journalists. At The Nation, Eric Alterman uses his column to print in full the assessment of his colleague Reed Richardson. What piques Richardson is that his journalistic colleagues have dared to look back at their own Bush-era reporting, and have found it flawed. He writes: “what was startling to see this past week was the degree to which the press willingly obliged a phalanx of Bush apologists intent on airbrushing out the many inconvenient and dreadful aspects of our 43rd president’s legacy.”
The so-called truths Richardson objects to include Bush’s “outrageous prevarications on Iraq,” by which Richardson means that Bush believed Saddam Hussein might think of using weapons of mass destruction and thought intelligence — believed as well by Democrats — was accurate. What really annoys him is that the Washington Post allowed Stephen Knott to grace its pages and to “fire a barrage of broadsides at his profession.”
One would think that Richardson and Alterman understand that op-ed pages are to be given over to people who have opinions different than those that usually are heard, and that since major papers allowed historians like Wilentz to more than once write major articles condemning George W. Bush (which were widely read and quoted), one op-ed dissenting from the viewpoint of most American historians is worthy to be considered. Rather than be upset about the violations of the historical profession engaged in by Wilentz and Schlesinger in their earlier pieces, these two Nation writers are angry that now some newspapers are allowing those who disagree with them to be heard. What happened, I wonder, to their support of the right of free speech?
I happen to think that it is more than likely that, years hence, George W. Bush’s administration will receive a mixed evaluation by historians. Some of his steps will be seen as wanting; others as successful. But such judgments will be made after using newly available archives, after conducting scores of interviews, and after reading new oral histories of policy-makers in his administration. They will not be made by venting about one’s partisan feelings about a Republican president when he was in office and repeating the same charges after he has been out of office for more than a decade.
So, after looking at the historians’ rankings at the HNN website, I have but one response to their ratings and comments: I give them a grade of F minus.