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How is George Bush being judged?

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By Stephen Knott
Monday, April 22, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
 

The George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum will be dedicated Thursday at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Despite the coming fanfare, many Americans consider Bush's presidency a failure.

In fact, many academics branded Bush a failure long before his presidency ended. In April 2006, Princeton University history professor Sean Wilentz published an essay in Rolling Stone titled “The Worst President in History?”

Wilentz 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. No other U.S. president “failed to embrace the opposing political party” in wartime, Wilentz claimed, despite numerous examples to the contrary, such as when Franklin D. Roosevelt compared his Republican opponents to fascists in 1944.

In December 2006 Columbia University history professor Eric Foner 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.” According to Foner, Warren Harding of Teapot Dome fame was something of a paragon of virtue next to Bush, whose administration was characterized by “even worse cronyism, corruption, and pro-business bias.”

Historian Douglas Brinkley 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 had a tendency to apply it liberally to Republican presidents, at first considered Bush an “amiable mediocrity” but later saw him as a threat to not just the nation but also the planet. In 2005, Schlesinger wrote 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.”

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.

There is a difference between punditry and scholarship. The latter requires biding one's time and offering perspective as the evidence emerges and the passions of the day cool. An assessment of Harry Truman's presidency looks quite different today than it did immediately after he left the White House in 1953. And no historian, especially Schlesinger, would have predicted in 1961 that 21st-century scholars would rank Dwight Eisenhower among the nation's greatest presidents.

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.

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

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