Red Queen History

Lest you think that the finding of the unscientific poll of professional historians by Robert S. McElvaine posted at History News Network, that George W. Bush is the worst president ever, is the final verdict of history, you might wnat to take a look at this post, also at HNN, by Larry DeWitt:

Here we go again. We are engaged in another exercise in instant history, in the form of a poll of opinion in which historians assume the role of soothsayers, predicting the future judgment of the profession on the Bush presidency. This is a follow-up poll to one from 2004 that Robert S. McElvaine reported on here on HNN in an August 2005 essay.

The current poll’s respondents (like those of the earlier poll) are acting as soothsayers because the history profession has not yet had the opportunity to engage the practices of valid historical scholarship. Valid historical scholarship requires us to do lots of things which require time, and especially, the passage of time. To make an historical assessment we need to engage the standard practices of scholarly research. It is these methodological disciplines which render historical judgments valid; it is not the “votes” of contemporary historical opinion. Even if every professional historian in the world placed Bush on exactly the same rung of the historical ladder, it would still be an empty exercise, because the processes of historical scholarship have not yet had an opportunity to be engaged here.

Even more importantly it is impossible to assess his presidency because the consequences of Mr. Bush’s actions can’t be determined yet. If Iraq descends into all-out civil war that spreads into warfare all across the region, he may well be judged the worst president ever. If Iraq becomes even a halting democracy at peace with its neighbors, he may be deemed a visionary.

It’s up to President Bush’s successors to determine that outcome and they’ll do so, not to preserve Mr. Bush’s legacy, but to pursue their own agenda and to secure their own legacies. This is not unique to the Bush presidency. It has been true since the very first president and it has been true of every president since. If George Washington’s successors hadn’t seen to it that the fledgling democracy survived and thrived, George Washington might not make it onto lists of bests presidents because there might have been be no U. S. presidents.

I think the odds are against George W. Bush but we’ll have to wait for decades before we can make a reasonable assessment.

But this is Red Queen history, history as practiced by Charles Dodgson’s character in Through the Looking Glass. “Sentence first, trial later!”

Others comment

Ross Douthat is harsh:

All of which is to say that sixty-one percent of the historians’ sample are ax-grinding fools whose nitwittery dishonors their profession. Judge Bush a failure by all means, but the fact that his legacy is only beginning its long unspooling ought to give anyone with even a glancing knowledge of history’s cunning passages – let alone a so-called “professional” – pause before pronouncing his administration the worst in American history.

Matthew Yglesias is skeptical:

At any rate, it will surprise no one to learn that I think Bush has been a very bad president. More interestingly, I also take the view that Bush is probably correct to think that history will remember him kindly. American presidents associated with big dramatic events tend to wind up with good reputations whether they deserve them or not. One possible Bush analogy would be to Woodrow Wilson, who did all kinds of things with regard to civil liberties that look indefensible today and whose foreign policy ended as a giant failure, but who was associated with both big events and with big ideas that were influential down the road. Someday, I bet there will be democracies in the Middle East and some future Republican president will figure out a way to put meat on the bones of “compassionate conservatism” and Bush will be looked upon as a far-sighted figure who made some mistakes in a difficult period of time. Will he deserve a good reputation? No. Will he get one? I’d say yes.

Callimachus considers James Buchanan, deemed by many historians as the worst president:

Historians, for instance, routinely rate James Buchanan the “worst” president. Which I can understand, if you look at the country a certain way. But was he a “failure?” That is, did he fail to do what he had sworn to do on his oath (“preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the Republic”) and did he accomplish the policies he applied to governance?

On that basis, you’d have to rate him a success. Buchanan defended the federal government’s property where he was able to do so, principally at Fort Sumter. He made clear that he considered it his duty to collect revenues in Southern ports. He stared down the South Carolinans time after time when they demanded its surrender. At one point, Buchanan wrote to Gov. Francis W. Pickens of South Carolina, “If South Carolina should attack any of these forts, she will then become the assailant in a war against the United States. It will not then be a question of coercing a State to remain in the Union, to which I am utterly opposed, … but it will be a question of voluntarily precipitating a conflict of arms on her part ….”

He hardly had the resources to do more than hold the line: The entire U.S. Army numbered barely 16,000 men, mired in red tape, scattered across the Indian frontier. The Constitution did not allow the president to call out a huge American army and impose his will on any place that displeased him. That is a modern view. It was invented, in part, by Lincoln.

To dismiss Buchanan’s adherence to the Constitution as a cover to allow treason, as some historians do, is to write off the foundation of the American republic and the genius of the Founders. It overlooks the seriousness with which Americans once regarded their balanced government and its institutions.

If I had to pick a worst president ever, it would have to be Warren G. Harding.

7 comments… add one
  • While I agree with the point that the judgment of history cannot come until the events, decisions, and the people who influence and make them are indeed history, I find a cosmic karma balancing in the pre-judging of the man and Presidency that established the “guilty until proven otherwise” regime in Guantanamo Bay, and who is responsible for spreading that attitude throughout government (e.g. we only do warrantless wiretapping on the “terrorists” without any due process in determining who *are* the “terrorists”).

    Think about it.

  • Jack, do you even remember Carnivore? How about the internment of the Japanese during WWII, or anyone the President deemed suspicious during the Civil War? If not, look them up. If so, your statements are so baseless as to earn only scorn for your naked partisanship. A little respect for history and context helps, ironically enough, to figure out what the judgement of history might some day be.

  • I remember Carnivore, the internment of the Japanese during World War II, and the suspension of habeas corpus by Lincoln during the Civil War. In all of those cases, the offenses were not spread throughout the government as they are now, nor were they codified as we are doing now. We are moving away from “innocent until proven guilty” to “guilty until proven otherwise”.

    I understand the context both of the historical events you cite along with our current situation. It is precisely that context that makes the actions of President Bush and his administration so egregious. I have written much about the loss of context in our so-called “war on terror”; still people crap in their pants every time someone says “terrorist” and throw the Bill of Rights out of the window. Is that the nation you want to live in, Jeff?

  • Thomas Jackson Link

    Hmmm, wind up burning to death at the top of the world trade center or allow tapping of overseas phone calls. Not too hard a choice now is it?

  • Not everyone agrees about Harding.

  • To Thomas Jackson: That is not the “choice” as you put it… and your simplistic way of expressing the issue shows your complete lack of understanding of the fundamentals underlying our freedoms.


  • Ah, but if the ones who write history are Africans, Bush might be listed as one of the greatest presidents.
    Saving a couple million black people may not seem important to the pundits but it is important to the ones getting HIV treatment.

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