Sean Wilentz of Princeton wondered if George W. Bush was “The Worst President in History?” Eric Foner of Columbia University agreed with him. (I found Foner’s remarks particularly problematic since in the immediate wake of 9-11 he reminded us that historians should be careful about analyzing any event until some time had past so that they could develop some perspective). Historian Robert Dallek proposed a constitutional amendment that would allow for a “recall” of Bush. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. said that Bush was a threat to the nation and the planet.
Stephen F. Knott, 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 (U of Kansas Press) notes that all of these historians are liberals who, of course, have strong political disagreements with Bush and his administration. Fair enough. But Knott, in his recent Washington Post article, goes on to argue that these political differences are getting in the way of historical objectivity. He states that these historians “breached their professional obligations” and engaged in “scholarly malpractice.”
Here is a taste:
The animus that scholars have directed toward Bush has at times made a mockery of the principle of academic objectivity. At the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in January 2009, 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. They 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.
All of this overheated rhetoric and fear-mongering has come from academics who profess to live the life of the mind. 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…
…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.
Also of interest: “Historians Still Despire George W. Bush” and Julian Zelizer’s “History’s Jury is Still Out on George W. Bush.”
It strikes me that the language of “the rise of partisan scholarship” suggests incorrectly that history hasn't always been an ideological tool and, in America, the tool of the factions in our two party system.
That said, though, I agree that it is ridiculous to pronounce historical judgment on a president so recently out of office. It's absurd. You hear about continental universities that believe that anything after World War I is too recent to be called history, and yet here American historians are, feeding the need of the US public for immediate access to an authoritative historical perspective. It's simply not possible, and any effort must consequently be reduced to pandering.