Is George W. Bush getting a bum rap from historians already?

Or as liberal historians will call it, "The Necronomicon"

My friend and colleague, Steve Knott, has just released a book that’s pretty much guaranteed to start a lot of bar fights — especially if you happen to drink in places like Princeton, New Jersey, or the Upper West Side of New York.

The book is called Rush to Judgment: George W. Bush, the War on Terror, and His Critics (University of Kansas Press, 2012). It’s already creating controversy — of the good kind — by arguing that Bush is getting a bum rap from politically prejudiced historians, journos, and academics –shocking, I know — who were judging the Bush presidency before it was even over. (Yeah, Sean Wilentz, he means you, among many others.)

Steve was recently interviewed by the Chronicle of Higher Education, which in itself tells you that this is an academic controversy already brewing. Here’s a snippet:

Certainly, Knott allows, critics of President Bush believed he was not intelligent enough to have a political philosophy that was sufficiently cogent for them to engage constructively. But he sees less honorable motives among the then-president’s critics. He detects a “tendency” among “a number of historians and law professors, particularly at elite places like the Ivy League.” It is a “remarkable” and “unprofessional” reflex to attack on ideological grounds, he says. “Many of these people will turn around and defend actions of activist presidents who they happen to agree with, whether it’s Franklin Roosevelt, or John F. Kennedy, or Lyndon Johnson.”

That last part, particularly about JFK, is worth thinking about. Is there a conservative president, ever, whose reputation could survive the kind of revelations that depict what a completely neurotic and screwed-up human being John F. Kennedy really was? (Or as Timothy Noah put it more succinctly in The New Republic: “JFK, Monster.”)

Steve’s book is about policy, and he’s right: there are no limits to the apologies historians will make for Kennedy and other liberal presidents when it comes to policy. But still, I can’t help but think how those apologies pale next to the excuses that have been made for the personal behavior of people like JFK while in office.

Recently, a woman revealed that she had an affair with Kennedy while a White House intern — and talk about history repeating itself — when she was only nineteen.

But more on that in another post. In the meantime, read Steve’s book; anyone who is going to try to assess the 43rd President will have to, whether they like it or not.

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7 comments

  1. I thought this post was supposed to be all about W getting a bum rap but it’s really about JFK getting a pass. What it’s really about is the poetic license historians employ when spinning facts for book deals and/or personal vendettas. Didn’t this all start with Josephus? I believe he’s still in print.

    • Andrew – Fair enough, although I’m leaving it to Prof. Knott to make the case for W getting the bum rap. I think my point was more along the lines of: historians were declaring Bush a failed president after one term, where with JFK they’re still “exploring the legacy” 50 years later. Code for: “We’re trying to figure out how to keep sweeping up behind this particular elephant.” The double-standard being employed — by academics who are trained to know better — is genuinely shocking when done as a comparison.

      • Tom: “historians were declaring Bush a failed president after one term” is rather too kind — many, including some known to us both personally, said W was illegitimate and failed from the start – hanging chads and all that nonsense.

        As for JFK and “exploring the legacy” – his fans, who are still legion, are having increasing difficulty reconciling the public hagiographic image with the utterly vile personal one, which can no longer be hidden from view. Recall that the UK biographer Nigel Hamilton, hired by the Kennedys on the basis of his fine bio of FM Montgomery, ran aground on the K-Klan shoals when he dared to think that he might be permitted to write a – gasp! – balanced view of JFK. I can testify that Hamilton was a big JFK admirer when he began the journey … a few years later, having seen the goods, not so much.

  2. Knott’s book will be a valuable contribution to a debate that needs to begin, free of the hottest passions. I was no fan of GWB but most of what has been written about him to date has been hackery, on all sides.

    As for JFK, he excelled from his first day in the White House, if not well before, at getting courtier journalists and soi-disant scholars to write the first draft of history mellifluously in his favor… it read great, even if much was untrue. JFK had myth-making down pat – the Day in Dallas surely helped, sad to say – and it egged on the tendency among liberals to think that all wisdom and virtue resided on their side of the aisle. If you know anything about the Kennedys, you know their skills at keeping a cadre of helpers-cum-syncophants around them, running defense, and not infrequently offense, at all perceived threats, real and imagined. When JFK became President he merely added people like Sorensen and Schlesinger to the list of factotums, adding WASPy diversity to the otherwise rather lace-curtain-Irish ranks of family servant-fixers like Kenny O’Donnell, et al. Dorchester meets Cambridge — you know the rest, or should.

  3. It is certainly the case that there is a lot of convenient amnesia about the vote on attacking Iraq, once it got harder than expected, if some warned always to use more troops. Tale of Two Texans will I think still be his marker, as to like LBJ, biting off more than he could chew, and losing a lot because of that, although, he at least had the foresight to try to do Social Security reform before it was too late.

  4. Can’t see where proper historians have much to say about a presidency that doesn’t even have its library open yet. File everything under current events for now. However, as Prof Schindler notes, it’s important to get the right spin of the first draft of history from your journalist pals and pet historians. Kudos to Knott for pointing out this obvious bias in W’s case.

    Historian is one of the oldest callings (thanks Thucydides, Xenophon, not so much Josephus), but it doesn’t mean one has to act like The Oldest Profession. :)

  5. What’s interesting in all this is that where JFK is concerned, the rule is clearly that personal flaws do not have anything to do with being a great president. But when it comes to conservatives, we get a whole litany of tut-tuts: Reagan was distant from his kids (and maybe had Alzheimer’s), Bush was a relapsed drunk (maybe), Nixon was a Quaker weirdo (sure), and on and on.

    I especially like the shots at Reagan. Kennedy collapsed twice as a man in his thirties from a serious disease that requires a daily, lifetime multi-drug regimen. Plus, he was regularly whacked up on painkillers and uppers. But hey, it’s all good…Jack’s good people, it’ll be fine. Meanwhile, a no-hoper candidate like Michele Bachmann (for whom I have no love and whom I feared as a candidate) gets a headache, and suddenly it’s a multi-day story in the press.

    Irony is dead, and the Left killed it.