Stephen F. Knott is a professor at the U.S. Naval War College and the author of “Rush to Judgment: George W. Bush, the War on Terror, and His Critics.”
The George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum will be dedicated Thursday at Southern Methodist University, an event that will draw all of the nation’s living presidents to Dallas. Despite the coming fanfare, many Americans consider Bush’s presidency a failure. There is little evidence that scholars, including the influential historians who pronounce the success or failure of an administration, are having second thoughts about their assessment of Bush as a failed chief executive. Unfortunately, far too many scholars revealed partisan bias and abandoned any pretense of objectivity in their rush to condemn the Bush presidency.
Many academics branded Bush a failure long before his presidency ended — and not just fringe elements of the academy, such as Ward Churchill or Howard Zinn, but also scholars from the nation’s most prestigious universities. In April 2006, Princeton history professor Sean Wilentz published an essay in Rolling Stone titled “The Worst President in History?” Wilentz argued that “George W. Bush’s presidency appears headed for colossal historical disgrace” in part because he had “demonized the Democrats,” hurting the nation’s ability to wage war. No other U.S. president “failed to embrace the opposing political party” in wartime, Wilentz claimed, despite numerous examples to the contrary, such as when Franklin D. Roosevelt compared his Republican opponents to fascists in 1944.
Not to be outdone, in December of that year Columbia history professor Eric Foner proclaimed Bush “the worst president in U.S. history” and argued that Bush sought to “strip people accused of crimes of rights that date as far back as the Magna Carta.” According to Foner, Warren Harding of Teapot Dome fame was something of a paragon of virtue next to Bush, whose administration was characterized by “even worse cronyism, corruption, and pro-business bias.”
In 2007, historian Robert Dallek was so appalled by the Bush presidency that he proposed a constitutional amendment that would allow for the “recall” of a sitting president: After securing passage of a 60 percent majority in both houses of Congress, the public would vote yes or no on removing the president and vice president from office. Historian Douglas Brinkley, author of a flattering election-year biography of 2004 presidential nominee John Kerry, declared in 2006 that “it’s safe to bet that Bush will be forever handcuffed to the bottom rungs of the presidential ladder” and that Bush purposely tried to “brutalize his opponents.”
Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who coined the term “imperial presidency” and had a tendency to apply it rather liberally to Republican presidents, at first considered Bush an “amiable mediocrity” but later saw him as a threat to not just the nation but also the planet. In 2005, Schlesinger wrote that the Bush administration was purposefully “driv[ing] toward domination of the world,” placing the constitutional system of separation of powers “under unprecedented, and at times, unbearable strain,” and was intent on “outlawing debate.” A 2010 Siena College Research Institute survey of 238 presidential scholars ranked Bush 39th out of 43, in the esteemed company of Andrew Johnson, James Buchanan, Franklin Pierce and Harding.