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

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