Politics & Policy

Fairly Hated

Lessons in delusion from liberal historians.

George W. Bush may be the worst president ever–at least, that’s what the newest issue of Rolling Stone says. The cover story is by Sean Wilentz, a prominent historian, who writes that when he and his Princeton colleagues rate our chief executives, Bush is a leading candidate for the bottom of the pile. And it’s not just them, but the whole profession. “Many historians are now wondering whether Bush, in fact, will be remembered as the very worst president in all of American history.” Joe Conason is saying the same thing over at Salon (no, you’re not seeing double), observing that Bush “is earning a reputation as America’s ‘worst president.’” And no, that’s not déjà vu you’re feeling. It was exactly three years ago that Harold Meyerson announced in the pages of The American Prospect that Bush was “the most dangerous president ever.”

Wilentz says we should take very seriously the emerging consensus among professional historians, because it was arrived at through a scrupulous and dispassionate consideration of the facts. Possible objections are refuted. For example, we can be sure that their judgment wasn’t affected by the left-of-center tilt of most historians (which he acknowledges). Why? Because they’re more critical of Bush than of other Republicans like Ronald Reagan or even Richard Nixon. In fact, Wilentz’s argument shows how bias runs through these evaluations. It tells us less about Bush than it does about the sad state of debate among many academics–and makes the case for more intellectual diversity on America’s campuses.

Wilentz runs through a list of failures to prove Bush’s awfulness, but his exposition is rather selective. He describes the Bush Doctrine as “unprovoked, preventive warfare,” as if that fairly sums it up. He describes supply-side economics as “discredited,” as if it’s now objective knowledge that cutting tax rates doesn’t increase economic activity. He says that “anemic” job growth since 2001 is the result not of tax cuts but increased federal spending, but he never gets around to mentioning today’s low unemployment and how much lower it is than in Europe, where government spending is even higher. He says No Child Left Behind is a failure because many states don’t like it. He never mentions what effects NCLB might be having on, say, education. He reads a lot into the administration’s response to Katrina, but doesn’t compare it to the response of the state government that actually employed the responders closest at hand. And he makes the fanatical claim that Bush is trying to subvert checks and balances in order to create a “presidential absolutism” in which the wartime president has “limitless” powers. He paints Bush as an extremist ideologue who caters to either the narrow (corporations) or the rabid (Christian conservatives)–and so sets himself up for failure after failure. And even if he had presented these issues fairly, many topics are simply ignored.

Now, I wasn’t expecting footnotes in Rolling Stone, but a scholar doesn’t have to sacrifice analytic integrity just because he’s writing for a non-academic audience. If this is what Wilentz considers a fair-minded treatment of the facts, then writing about the Israel lobby might be more up his alley. My guess, however, is that he believes his discussion is fair. And he probably believes this because most of the people he talks to see these things roughly the same way. The academic world is an insular place when it comes to politics.

Wilentz insists that their liberal values aren’t the reason why so many historians come down hard on Bush. But his blindness to his own partisan outlook belies his claims to evenhandedness. It’s as if he just hasn’t noticed the peculiar way Bush has of getting under the skin of liberals (like…Wilentz). More than one liberal has said that what drives them to hatred of Bush isn’t so much his policies as his swagger and smirk, his privileged life, and his diction. That Bush is judged more negatively that any other president by these historians isn’t proof that Bush really is the worst; to the contrary, it’s what follows from the fact that liberals hate Bush and many historians are liberals.

Why do so many liberal intellectuals hate Bush so much? Something could be said for his personality and his ideology, but another factor–likely a major one–is his timing. Bush is a product of, and heir to, a conservative movement that is larger and more effective than it was 20 or 40 years ago. Today, conservatives hold more elected offices, connect with more voters, and have more of a media presence than ever. It’s not surprising that they are now better able to set the political agenda than when Reagan (much less Nixon) was president.

It’s not difficult to detect how many liberals feel about this sea-change in modern American history. Harold Meyerson called Bush the most dangerous president ever, and said that, by comparison, “I miss Ronald Reagan.” But he goes on to acknowledge that Reaganites wanted many of the same things Bushies do–they just couldn’t implement them. What Meyerson really misses is an America in which a conservative president had to try to govern without a House majority, without a significant number of like-minded Republican senators, without talk radio or conservative bloggers, and without more conservative judges. He misses an America in which liberals called the shots. It’s enough to have driven Wilentz to write an article for The American Prospect in 2004 urging fellow liberals to “fight like hell against the right.” Imagine what he’d have said if partisanship were a factor in all this.

Gerard Alexander is a professor of politics at the University of Virginia and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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