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.