Don't know much about history

Matthew Hoy
By Matthew Hoy on December 3, 2006

Sunday's Washington Post opinion section, Outlook, features short articles by five historians on where President George W. Bush will rank in history.

Four of the historians are so blinkered by their own politics that it's highly likely that they've never met someone who voted for Bush in person and the only Republicans they know are the ones they see on TV.

Douglas Brinkley likens Bush to Herbert Hoover and groups him with presidents Richard M. Nixon and Warren G. Harding at bottom of the presidential ladder.

Eric Foner says that Bush is the worst ever. Foner, though deserves some point-and-laugh disdain for his "analysis."

Bush has taken this disdain for law even further. He has sought to strip people accused of crimes of rights that date as far back as the Magna Carta in Anglo-American jurisprudence: trial by impartial jury, access to lawyers and knowledge of evidence against them. In dozens of statements when signing legislation, he has asserted the right to ignore the parts of laws with which he disagrees. His administration has adopted policies regarding the treatment of prisoners of war that have disgraced the nation and alienated virtually the entire world. Usually, during wartime, the Supreme Court has refrained from passing judgment on presidential actions related to national defense. The court's unprecedented rebukes of Bush's policies on detainees indicate how far the administration has strayed from the rule of law.

First, I love how the judiciary stepping into the running of the war is evidence that the executive is out of line and not reverse. (Foner also ignores the fact that Congress -- in a rebuke to the judiciary -- has passed legislation approving of President Bush's handling of captured enemy combatants. Foner must think that this is also the Worst. Congress. Ever.) Second, two paragraphs later Foner praises a man widely considered the best president the United States ever had -- Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln, then a member of Congress from Illinois, condemned Polk for misleading Congress and the public about the cause of the war -- an alleged Mexican incursion into the United States. Accepting the president's right to attack another country "whenever he shall deem it necessary," Lincoln observed, would make it impossible to "fix any limit" to his power to make war. Today, one wishes that the country had heeded Lincoln's warning.

This is the same Lincoln that suspended habeus corpus during the Civil War -- an act far more egregious to Anglo-American jurisprudence than anything Bush has done.

The third historian is David Greenberg who damns Bush with faint praise -- at least he's no Nixon.

Greenberg, like Foner, shows the political bias inherent in his assessment.

One can argue that Bush's sanctioning of illegal wiretapping by the National Security Agency constitutes an impeachable offense. His policy of depriving suspected terrorists and POWs of Geneva Convention protections may also strike some people as grounds for removal -- although Congress, by acquiescing in Bush's military detention policy last fall, made the latter argument a tougher sell.

Illegal wiretapping? Found illegal by one partisan judge whose decision was so poorly reasoned that even those who believe the wiretapping is illegal shook their heads in dismay. And then there's the assumption that illegal combatants deserve Geneva Convention protections. Yes, the Supreme Court ruled that they do deserve some of those protections, but once again, the court was in its legislative mode, not its judicial one.

Then we have Michael Lind who has ranked them all and determined that Bush is fifth-worst. The top four? James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Richard M. Nixon and James Madison.

I love this one from Lind:

The fact that Bush followed the invasion of Afghanistan, which had sheltered al-Qaeda, with the toppling of Saddam Hussein, will puzzle historians for centuries. It is as though, after Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor, FDR had asked Congress to declare war on Argentina.

Or Germany. Or Italy.

Finally there is one historian who has his head on straight: Vincent J. Cannato of UMass.

Earlier this year, Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz took to the pages of Rolling Stone to ponder whether Bush is the "worst president in history" and concluded that he "appears headed for colossal historical disgrace."

So, case closed? Not yet. I long ago learned to look with suspicion when members of the left-leaning historical profession delve into contemporary politics or profess near unanimity. Today's pronouncements that Bush is the "worst president ever" are too often ideology masquerading as history.

Bingo! He nailed it.

Much of Bush's legacy will rest on the future trajectory of the fight against terrorism, the nation's continued security and the evolving direction of the Middle East. Things may look grim today, but that doesn't ensure a grim future.

No one expects historians to be perfectly objective. But history should at least teach us humility. Time will cool today's political passions. As years pass, more documents will be released, more insights gleaned and the broader picture of this era will be painted. Only then will we begin to see how George W. Bush fares in the pantheon of U.S. presidents.

I don't know how history will judge him. My guess is that, like most presidents, he will bequeath a mixed record. We can debate policies and actions now, but honesty should force us to acknowledge that real judgments will have to wait.

The Post could've saved itself some valuable real estate on its opinion pages if it had simply run Cannato's piece and then merely listed the other four historians as suffering from BDS.

0 comments on “Don't know much about history”

  1. My guess is Bush will drop into the bottom of the middle third or top of the bottom third. Besides the WoT his presidency will go down as one of missed opportunities and the destruction of the Reagan legacy.



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December 2006



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