Is George W. Bush the Victim of a Bum’s Rush to Judgment?

george w bush

Is George W. Bush the victim of a bum’s rush to judgment?

Stephen F. Knott, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College and the author of the book “Rush to Judgment: George W. Bush, the War on Terror, and His Critics” certainly believes so.

In order to buttress his claim, Knott — in an opinion piece at the Washington Post — admits that “many Americans consider Bush’s presidency a failure,” and, furthermore, that “[t]here is little evidence that scholars, including the influential historians who pronounce the success or failure of an administration, are having second thoughts about their assessment of Bush as a failed chief executive.”

To support his claim that “far too many scholars revealed partisan bias and abandoned any pretense of objectivity in their rush to condemn the Bush presidency,” Knott quotes and refers to well-known, reputable academics, scholars (“from the nation’s most prestigious universities”) and historians who indeed consider Bush a failure — in addition to “fringe elements of the academy, such as Ward Churchill or Howard Zinn.”

Among such academics, scholars and historians, Knott cites:

• Princeton history professor Sean Wilentz who in April 2006 published an essay in Rolling Stone titled “The Worst President in History?” and argued “that ‘George W. Bush’s presidency appears headed for colossal historical disgrace’ in part because he had ‘demonized the Democrats,’ hurting the nation’s ability to wage war.”

• Columbia history professor Eric Foner who on December 2006 “proclaimed Bush ‘the worst president in U.S. history’ and argued that Bush sought to ‘strip people accused of crimes of rights that date as far back as the Magna Carta.’”

• Historian Robert Dallek who in 2007 “was so appalled by the Bush presidency that he proposed a constitutional amendment that would allow for the ‘recall’ of a sitting president”

• Historian Douglas Brinkley, “author of a flattering election-year biography of 2004 presidential nominee John Kerry,[who]declared 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.’”

• Arthur Schlesinger Jr., “who coined the term ‘imperial presidency’ and [who] had a tendency to apply it rather liberally to Republican presidents, [and who] at first considered Bush an ‘amiable mediocrity’”

As icing to the rush-to-judgment cake, Knott adds:

A 2010 Siena College Research Institute survey of 238 presidential scholars ranked Bush 39th out of 43, in the esteemed company of Andrew Johnson, James Buchanan, Franklin Pierce and Harding.

Finally, to illustrate how “[t]he animus that scholars have directed toward Bush has at times made a mockery of the principle of academic objectivity,” Knott recalls how, at the 2009 meeting of the American Historical Association, “a panel on the Bush-Cheney years organized by a group called Historians Against the War featured scholars from Columbia, Yale, Trinity College, New York University and Yeshiva University…compared the Bush ‘regime’s’ security practices to those of Joseph McCarthy and various ‘war criminals.’ The cover illustration of the roundtable’s report showed Bush and his vice president, Dick Cheney, seated on a pile of human skulls.”

Knott, referring to these judgments as “overheated rhetoric and fear-mongering” coming from “academics who profess to live the life of the mind,” himself judges:

In their hasty, partisan-tinged assessments of Bush, far too many scholars breached their professional obligations, engaging in a form of scholarly malpractice, by failing to do what historians are trained to do before pronouncing judgment on a presidency: conduct tedious archival research, undertake oral history interviews, plow through memoirs, interview foreign leaders and wait for the release of classified information.

Knott concludes by pleading for “passions of the day [to] cool,” by lamenting the “rise of partisan scholarship: the use of history as ideology and as a political weapon, which means the corruption of history as history,” by admitting that “Bush may not have been a great president; he may even be considered an average or below-average president,” but that “[Bush] and — more important — the nation deserve better than this partisan rush to judgment.”

I am no academic, scholar or historian and while I have my own opinions about George Bush’s presidency — opinions that I have expressed freely as a blogger — I would not exactly say that the numerous respected academics, scholars and historians who have witnessed eight years of actual presidential performance and who have had an additional four years to reflect on and digest that performance, are guilty of “a rush to judgment.”

Read more of Mr. Knott’s piece here.

Author: DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

17 Comments

  1. LOL A look at Amazon points to Dr. Stephen Knott’s bias.

    http://www.amazon.com/Stephen-.....B001HD3NUS

    Further Googling reveals more about Knott.
    http://www.claremont.org/schol.....cholar.asp
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Claremont_Institute

    The Claremont Institute is an American conservative think tank based in Claremont, California. The mission of the Claremont Institute is “to restore the principles of the American founding fathers to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life”, and to “remake American politics” as established by the founders in the U.S. Declaration of Independence.[1]

    And Knott and the Claremont Institute don’t have a bias?

    “rise of partisan scholarship: the use of history as ideology and as a political weapon, which means the corruption of history as history,”

    I see no mention of paleoconservative Larison, just “liberal academics.”

  2. and to “remake American politics” as established by the founders in the U.S. Declaration of Independence.

    Perhaps they also want to “rewrite American history” as it suits whatever political cause.

  3. I’m not a big fan of W. But these more or less instant histories are usually wrong regardless of which side of the political spectrum they come from. Some years usually have to pass before the performance of an individual can be judged based on objective research and insights. These instant histories are too often tainted by the current political biases or distorted by people with an ax to grind. Herbert Hoover might be a good example to compare W with. With the depression he was widely vilified and blamed for it at the time. With the passage of years I think history has come to judge him more kindly.

  4. Only (more) time will tell Will…

  5. Great job DDW, really enjoyed this.

    Brilliant, Willwright.

  6. American politics as created by the Founding Fathers included slavery, no standing army, and limited voting to land owning men. So, you know, not sure we want to go ALL the way back to Founding Fathers time. The main thing they did right was to allow for a living document that could change with the times while still making sure we have our core freedoms intact. Mostly.

    As far as this author goes, he seems to be one of those guys who plays a neat game when it comes to passing judgement on conservatives. The one where if you criticize a conservative, you must be a liberal, therefore you’re biased, and your opinion doesn’t count, regardless of what said conservative is doing. Neat game, and a great way to convince morons they don’t have to ever feel bad about objectively screwing up everything they touch simply because they have no idea what they are doing.

  7. Good analysis, slamfu. Thanks.

  8. No, he’s the victim of a culture completely plugged in to just about everything he did, nearly as soon as he did it (or even contemplated doing it). It’s no longer the case that we only learn about presidential actions 20 years after the fact when some historian digs up the information. Whether this is a good or a bad thing for effective governing is debatable.

    slamfu has elucidated the current attempt (used by both sides) to allieviate this conundrum.

  9. That is an excellent point, T.O.

    With pretty much “everything on the table” nearly instantaneously, as far as political actions and related matters, and with all the instant and abundant research data, government and public records, and analyses available (not even mentioning the various “weakyleaks”) one can pretty much form quite a reliable impression — and judgment — of a politician without having to wait 20, 30 or 40 years.

    Don’t get me wrong, it cuts both ways. Democrats may be totally wrong on Bush, just as Republicans have already decided on Obama — and he is still in office :)

  10. I don’t know, Ohioan. In the intervening 5 years, the depth of Dubya’s failure as a president seems only to have gotten deeper the more we know. Time may soften the anger at him, and dull the senses every time a new awful thing done comes to be public knowledge, but it’s not like anything that’s coming out is vindicating him in any way. There aren’t reports on “maybe he wasn’t so bad — see this good thing he did”.

  11. Roro80 its possible your right and he will be ranked even lower than he is now(by the way pretty close to the bottom already). I still think it takes time to eliminate any potential bias or other factors. I’m not sure I agree with the earlier T.O. comment that the instant plugged-in info available gives all we need to know now and will hold up over time. The whole argument whether he’s getting the bum rush is based on conflicting interpretations of the instant info. Often big decisions taken at given point and criticized at the same time have often gone on to be proven correct in the long run(of course the opposite holds true as well). Think of Churchill’s warnings about Hitler in the 1930′s that were rejected by most at the time as an example.

  12. Will

    I specifically used words like “nearly” and “almost” to avoid giving the impression “that the instant plugged-in info available gives all we need to know now and will hold up over time”.

    Certainly we needed more information than was generally available prior to any of his actions, but we could quickly see the poor results of those actions. I would argue we saw them more quickly than in any prior conflict. The incompetence of the invasion into Iraq, and of his appointees to oversee the aftermath was not long in coming – as was the knowledge of the torture procedures.

    We know more about questionable presidential actions in Vietnam than in WWII. About those in Iraq than those in Vietnam. We are more informed about civil rights violations perpetrated by current politicians than we ever were before youtube videos and recorded conversations made it into the public conscience (some almost instantaneously). Which is why our politicians are having such a struggle to understand “open mic”.

    Some plots will never be uncovered; some only years later; but more and more are being exposed quickly enough for citizens to make a current decision. Would Churchill’s warnings be more successful today? Good question.

  13. T.O. sorry if I mischaracterized your thoughts. It’s hard to judge what would have happened in the past if there was more information available quickly like today. But this assumes the information we have today is of better quality or that people are better at interpreting or analyzing information than in the past which is doubtful in my opinion. Also most people have experiences in their lives that were viewed one way when they occurred and another with the passage of time and with further reflection. In Bush’s case I doubt in 10 or 20 years his largely negative perception will change much.

  14. Perhaps history will be a bit kinder to George W. Bush than the present, but the “bums rush to judgement” that happened following his Presidency cannot be denied.

    In 2008, the Republican brand had been so badly damaged by Bush that a wounded war veteran and a political phenom could not defeat an inexperienced junior senator with a “Muslim-sounding” name running alongside a liberal gaffe-factory.

    I don’t want to say it was a shellacking, but consider this:

    Gerald Ford – Richard Nixon’s Vice President – the second in command behind the only US President to resign…the guy who pardoned Nixon…won 240 electoral votes in 1976.

    McCain/Palin won 173 electoral votes in 2008.

    The shadow of Bush was darker in 2008 than the shadow of Nixon in ’76.

    That’s a dubious accomplishment no matter how you look at it.

  15. Five days after 9/11, when the whole world was united in sympathy with the USA, GWB, in an impromptu media Q+A made what is IMO either the most stupid or the most evil statement ever uttered by a sitting president of the United States. Possibly it qualifies as both.

    He said: “this crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while.”, sparking a clash of civilizations that has caused untold misery to millions of people, shredded the US constitution, dropped two trillion dollars into a black hole of war profiteering and graft, and in conjunction with the first wartime tax cut by any society since the Romans, set the stage for worldwide economic chaos.

    It’s really, really hard to imagine how historians might one day be able to somehow recast these events in a positive light.

  16. epiphyte — funny, the idea that has grown my anger over time from that speech was that we should all pull together by going shopping. I remember thinking “huh?” at the time, but in retrospect I almost can’t believe that that was his advice to the nation. He had a unique opportunity to unite the nation’s people at a time when the whole world was watching in sympathy and support, and he asked us to go shopping. Shopping.

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