Of Course, Historians Can Offer Their Assessment of Bush's Presidency
Mr. Wilentz is a professor of history at Princeton University and a contributing editor at HNN Blog, Cliopatria.
Larry DeWitt’s article is unfortunate. Dating back to George Bancroft, there is a long tradition of American historians bringing to bear their knowledge of the past in order to assess present politics and social issues. These historians view such commentary as part of a historian’s civic role, even as a civic duty. They have included, in recent decades, not just Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., but C. Vann Woodward, Richard Hofstadter, John Hope Franklin, Christopher Lasch, and Garry Wills, among other leading scholars.
The main issue at stake in historical writing of any kind is not the proximity of events. It is whether that writing persuasively marshals evidence and historical reasoning. Of course, the documentation of recent and current events will always be thinner than it will become in future. What Theodore Draper once called “present history,” like all history, is subject to change, just as it is subject to debate. But it is not prima facie illegitimate, as DeWitt claims.
Let me be clear: I am not saying that good historians must be present-minded, or that objectivity is bogus, or any of the other radical and “postmodern” things DeWitt accuses me of saying. I reject the idea he imputes to Schlesinger (and by implication to me) that history “contains definitive detailed instructions for present policymakers” – though I do believe that an appreciation of history is essential for all citizens, voters and policymakers alike, and for the same humanizing reasons Henry Steele Commager described in a passage DeWitt quotes against me. I fully endorse William Leuchtenburg’s contention that “those who insist that history is worthwhile only when it offers solutions to current problems reveal a hostility to the very nature of the historical enterprise.”1 But I also believe it crucial that historical writing of any kind be judged on the basis of an engagement with its evidence and logic. DeWitt’s article consistently ducks that engagement, even when it advances its own arguments about recent events.
In 1998, I presented a detailed historical argument that the allegations against Bill Clinton did not rise to the level of an impeachable offense. DeWitt sharply disagrees; he says that history will, if anything, “brighten” the reputation of those who voted for impeachment. Yet he never discusses the evidence I provided from The Federalist, the ratification debates, and other sources, including the Constitution. Neither does he bother to rebut the historical reasoning of my argument. Nor does he present any evidence or logic of his own. Instead, he summarily dismisses my historical assessments as “political advocacy,” and “hectoring,” writes fancifully and fallaciously about my motives when I testified before Congress, and attacks my plainly rhetorical statements about the judgment of history (statements he feels perfectly free to make himself).
DeWitt likewise evades serious engagement regarding my Rolling Stone article, while he badly misrepresents its argument. According to him, I not only assessed George W. Bush’s presidency to date in historical terms, I predicted its future course. In fact, I wrote:
No historian can responsibly predict the future with absolute certainty. There are too many imponderables still to come in the two and a half years left in Bush’s presidency to know exactly how it will look in 2009, let alone in 2059.
Having read the results of a survey undertaken in 2004 by History News Network (which, strangely, escapes DeWitt’s ire), I sought to understand and explain why, by a lopsided margin, historians considered the Bush Administration an enormous failure, and why, even two years ago, a considerable number of historians considered Bush the worst president in history.
For DeWitt, my findings amount to nothing more than partisan claptrap, with “vast amounts of pure political harangue” – an unhistorical “long litany of liberal complaints about the Bush presidency” wrapped in “spurious” historical references. Once again, though, he refuses to engage seriously with my arguments, or to consider the evidence that lies behind them. It is neither “spurious” nor “liberal” to note that the lion’s share of benefits from the Bush tax cuts have gone to the richest Americans, with the tax burden shifted to middle-income families: the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office concluded as much in August 2004, and nothing has happened since to alter that conclusion. It is neither “spurious” nor “liberal” to note that President Bush is the first president in history to allow the press to disclose, through a close friend, his belief that he was ordained by God to lead the country: it is a fact. Nor is it “liberal” let alone “spurious” to say that “the American objective in Iraq has failed,” or that Bush has refused to back down from his “high-flown pronouncements” about failed policies: I quoted those passages from William F. Buckley, Jr.
But DeWitt shows little interest in debating the evidence. It is sufficient for him to impugn my motives, label any historical evaluation of the Bush Presidency to date self-evidently ludicrous, and then call for the prohibition of a certain kind of historical writing. Perhaps that last appeal was a little bit tongue-in-cheek. But it’s still dismaying.
1 William E. Leuchtenburg, “The Historian and the Public Realm,” American Historical Review, Vol. 97, No. 1, Feb. 1992, 7.
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Patrick M. Ebbitt - 9/25/2006
Thanks for the wrestling analogy compliment especially, from a lifelong fan of Bruno Sammartino who finds Larry Zybisko (a truly great man in real life) to be the ultimate heel in the fantasy world of the squared circle.
As always, you're an excellent blogging partner, highly intelligent/ educated and a true patriot/ gentleman. I know that you're just as hopeful and at times doubtful/ questioning as anyone including, myself as to the direction we are headed in Iraq but, overall I believe the mistakes have far outnumbered the successes and it is our troops who pay the ultimate price. Let's pray together that we can turn it around and bring our kids home safely very soon.
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Patrick M. Ebbitt - 9/25/2006
If Iraq is such a success simply prove it?
You spending an inordinate amount of time and energy defending the indefensible Bush Administration leads me to believe that you're either a doubter or worse yet, a poseur.
Patrick M. Ebbitt - 9/25/2006
Deodorant, bandanas, Dr Scholl's insoles (men & women's), disposable razors, X-long boot strings and as a special treat... Kool-aid Very Cherry packets. This is my families donation to this weeks collection bundle for our troops in Iraq.
If you can believe it the worthless Bush Administration that, you so adamantly defend, cannot even provide our boys boot strings? WTF!!! While Cheney gorges himself on prime Halliburton filets.
But, using circular logic in your rebuttal to deflect from a post that you made in a clear effort to attempt to gouge at the eyes of Bush's detractors then, hide the foreign object in your trunks to make off like Larry Zybisko, you have been outed by a referee who never misses a dirty trick and are disqualified.
We need not discuss any further events, statistics or the realities on the ground in Iraq. The mere fact that a civilian family is called upon, out of despair, to provide our brave troops boot strings proves that this war and the Bush government is a complete and total failure. Anyone who says otherwise is an enemy of the United States and should be shipped off to Gitmo to have the living piss beat out of them.
andy mahan - 9/19/2006
I'm sure,not unexpectedly for you, I disagree with all of the extremist, moonbat, hyperbole.
I will however give you an A+ on the wrestling analogy, complete with "hidden" weapon in my trunks and "eye gouging". In my years of political exchange, that is the first professional wrestling reference I've heard and it was enjoyable to read.
andy mahan - 9/19/2006
The reverse example would be news anchors, for instance. They speak clearly, concisely, cogently and with elacrity yet most are as dumb as rocks. They lap up the shallow unsupported partisan drivel without critical thought one.
andy mahan - 9/19/2006
"Nor is it “liberal” let alone “spurious” to say that “the American objective in Iraq has failed,” or that Bush has refused to back down from his “high-flown pronouncements” about failed policies"
This passage above is extremely misguided or dishonest. We don't know for a fact that Iraq is a success or a failure. The truth is that answer is in a constant state of flux, as are questions of whether Vietnam, Korea, Japan and Germany encursions were successful. Sure you can pick things out to support an argument but as many as you mention the opposition can double it. Success or failure is also an issue of perspective. Your claim that Iraq is a failure is only your little opinion it doesn't refect reality. I've noticed of late the perception of the anti Bush crowd that if they just keep saying something like "Bush Lied" it will become true. Most of the population do not possess the sheeplike qualities of the move-oners
andy mahan - 9/19/2006
And how was what Mr Thomas said not objective? Maybe I misunderstand but he stated the hard facts surrounding Clinton's impeachment. The treatment of Clinton exposes a major difference between Dems and Reps. Clinton committed purjury. He admitted it. That is grounds for removal from office by itself. Reps CHOSE to not remove him from office in the greater interest of America and her government. For a few years after that I thought the Dems nor the Reps would ever again try to remove a President for political reasons. I now believe that Dems are truly reckless and negligent to remove GWB if given the chance. The children learned nothing from the railroading of Nixon.
andy mahan - 9/19/2006
If you'd understood my post you'd know that I will not attempt to prove that Iraq is a success just as you are woefully incompetant to prove it a failure.
Jason B Keuter - 5/26/2006
I always write these posts prior to riding off to work, so forgive this follow up.
I see in your post that the power elite (i.e. corporations; i.e. capitalists) are you using their power to turn people into mindless consumers - presumably for the benefit of the power elite instead of the consumer. I see also that the professoriat (i.e. vanguard of the revolution; i.e. marginalized monastic order) is the only hope we have of turning people away from the darkside (i.e. eventual capitalist immiseration; i.e. hell) and towards what Marxists have taken to calling "susbtantive" democracy. The job of the professor is to thus expose capitalism for what it is (against the interests of the masses). At the present moment, however, the masses are not yet ready for democracy, so when they do things like ask questions about what professors teach on the their dime, they are dupes of the right who use their economic power to pervert democratic structures. These structures can't be said to be substantive until the capitalists are gone; but the capitalists won't go away if the democracy they manipulate throws out the professorial vanguard of the revolution.
That is why professors prefer that taxpayers not have any role in higher education other than to pay for it. That is also why so much scholarship has been devoted to a dedicated effort to demonstrate that mainstream culture is part of a complex web of elite power.
On a lighter note, were historians and academics in general to acknowledge that their value and roile in society is simply one of enriching people's lives with greater knowledge, then one would suspect that there would be little financial support for it. As one reared on economic determinism, I can't help but catch a major whiff of self-interest in government employees lamabasting "consumerism" (which could be construed as "having a high quality of life'ism). In other words, stop giving your hard earned dollars to the capitalists and give them to me. The difference is, of course, that you don't have to give your money to the capitalists, and you usually don't unless they give you something in return (it's called reciprocity, which is morall good).
In this sense, then, a lot of what has passed itself off as scholarship has really been a strident and at times hysterical attempt at self-justification by a group of government bureaucrats desperate to keep themselves away from democratic accountability by attacking such accountability as fundamentally contrary to the spirit of democracy.
Most of this anxiety has been largely unwarranted, as professors are pretty much left alone for the same reason all bureaucrats are left alone - voeter apathy and indifference. As tuition increases make voters more conscious of the actual cost of supporting educational institutions, however, those voters then start to feel as if they should have some say in what those institutions do.
And this is where the anxiety comes from: universities are middle class institutions that are to be gateways to middle class status. What berating mainstream middle class culture has to do with that mission might elude the heathen materialists who don't mind a little cultural enrichment but would never be dumb enough to choose it over actual enrichment. And why should they? Their professors never have!
Jason B Keuter - 5/26/2006
There is a power elite? Perhaps, but it is a far more fluid power elite than those who use the term care to recognize and most importantly, George Bush's string pullers are no the only ones exercising power in our society. But the idea of a power elite is convenient for those wishing to excuse themselves from any kind of responsiblity for their own exercise of power. It is part of the ethos that regards individual moral responsibility as a weapon that weakens further the already weak; so, since the power elite controls everything, they create the structures that make necessary the moral abandon with which people exercise power in American society. Thus, the local professor, school teacher or any other government official has carte blanche permission to do what they want and pretend that all of their failures are some kind of systemic orchestration and any one who tries to hold them accountable is a dupe of the power elite.
Actually, Americans have an amazing amount of freedom, which in many ways is indistinguishable from power. If some are poor and some are rich and some are middle class and some got laid off - in other words, if they don't have total control and power over every single detail of their own lives, they can't be said to be victims of a power elite.
I think this is very relevant to the question of politicization of the historical profession. It is the manner in which a particular AMerican social class establishes its superior moral vision and thus argues that any "attack" on its privileges is, in point of fact, an orchestrated systemic ruinatioon of what little hope there is left. In this sense, historians have simply become a kind of high clergy pouring derision upon the unknowing masses who pay for the abuse and chiding the more materialistic of their aristocratic compratiots for their lack of Christian modesty and compassion (hence the broken down volvo and the tattered wool sweaters and unkempt hair).
The notion of a power elite is as necessary to this class as the notion of the devil was to the high clergy.
Larry DeWitt - 5/26/2006
This is a well-informed and reasoned post, and I am happy to respond to it.
I do not disagree with the general tenor of your comments, and I also find myself in sympathy with many of your specific points as well.
My interest–as you correctly discern–is with the question of objectivity in historical scholarship, and not with the specific question of assessing the Bush presidency. Although I have not endeavored to give a formal definition of objectivity, I do generally have in mind the kind of scholarship that Imre Lakatos used to offer–although I am more broadly an admirer of Karl Popper himself.
What I am trying to argue here is a fairly simple point: what Wilentz has done in his essay is intermingle his own political opinions with his historical scholarship in such a way as to imply that the historical scholarship certifies those opinions as somehow being merely facts of history rather than just his politics. I cited specific examples of this in the original essay. To restate what I said there:
“His essay in fact contains vast amounts of pure political harangue. He warns Bush about presumed plans to bomb Iran; he scoffs at the appointment of Josh Bolten as Bush’s new Chief of Staff, opining that ‘it represents a rededication to current policies and personnel, not a serious change.’ He complains that ‘The power of Vice President Dick Cheney, meanwhile, remains uncurbed.’ He recites a long litany of liberal complaints about the Bush presidency, from tax cuts that benefitted the richest Americans to his too-cozy relationship with the Christian Right. ‘Bush’s faith-based conception of his mission . . . jibes well with his administration’s pro-business dogma on global warming and other environmental issues,’ Wilentz informs us. All of which are perfectly legitimate political opinions; but none of which is historical scholarship.”
That is really my central point. I am not arguing Wilentz is wrong in any of these political opinions. I am only pointing out that these opinions are not the same thing as the historical scholarship which surrounds them. And what I consider intellectually illicit is intermixing the objective scholarship in with political opinions in such a way as to lend an aura of scholarship to those political opinions. In other words, I am saying that it is intellectually dishonest to argue for his politics in the manner in which Professor Wilentz does so.
Now, I do suggest that this form of intellectual dishonesty is so corrosive of the ideal of objective scholarship that we would be better off if historians simply refrained from commenting at all on contemporary political issues. That is not, however, my goal here. I am simply arguing for a rigorous effort to be more circumspect in separating out one’s own opinions about present political issues from what one can establish using the methodologies of historical research. If historians like Wilentz could be more honest in making this separation, then I would have no objections to historians being involved in contemporary public debates. But I am trying to push what I consider to be an imbalanced intellectual system back in the direction of a more objective, less politicized process–and I have offered an admittedly provocative suggestion in order to try to induce some movement in the pendulum back in that direction.
Anyway, thanks for your thoughtful comments.
Rodney Huff - 5/25/2006
I share your concern about objectivity in scholarship, but I don't think we share the same definition of the term. Whether an assessment is "objective" depends on the methods used in research. If the methods are public, replicable, and testable, as well as certified and used by a community of observers who make explicit the assumptions on which their intellectual craftsmanship is based (a nod here to both Imre Lakatos and C. Wright Mills), then they are objective, as the anthropologist Marvin Harris points out. Objectivity cannot simply mean trafficking in "just the facts" (I'm not sure if this is the definition you had in mind, but this seems to be the one with which most people operate). The "facts" are always constructed. (Don't worry; I'm not going to launch into a post-modernist rant about how everything is socially constructed and that there is no basis for objective truth. That post-modernists take for granted the objective truth-value of this statement should raise eye brows.) If you want your work to be considered objective, the thing to do is to detail the process by which "the facts" are constructed in the course of research. Evidence occurs where "the facts," soundly constructed, are linked to a specific hypothesis, favorably or unfavorably. (Wilentz has already scolded you for not confronting the evidence he uses, so you won't hear it from me, too.)
What concerns me is your timidity when faced with political issues. At this point in history, when big decisions, which affect greater and greater portions of humanity, are being made by fewer and fewer people in the highest circles of power (there is indeed a power elite by the way - don't let the disagreements and conflict at lower, administrative levels of power distract you from the fact that the really big decisions come from higher up, among a more unified set of elites who hop with ease from big business to the realm of politics [witness George Bush and Dick Cheney]), it would be politically irresponsible to abdicate one's constitutionally sanctioned role as critic of those in power, whether historian or not, especially if you are armed with an intimate knowledge of history, gained from objective reconstructions of past events, which can shed light on the significance of the big decisions that are being made right now by those in power. That's the whole reason why HNN exists - to put current events in historical perspective.
It's ok, even desirable, to engage in research with political implications. It shouldn't be avoided. Franz Boas at the beginning of the last century researched the relationship among race, language, and culture - a political minefield -and found that these things were rooted independently in one's learning and social experience; these things were not, as it was popularly imagined, genetically wired together in a heritable package. And now we should not shun a professional obligation to inform a free-thinking public, so critical to democracy (rather than masses of mere consumers, so critical to capitalists) just because some research may have politically divisive results. As long as we use objective methods, we should have nothing to fear, except those who would suppress unfavorable findings for political or personal reasons.
There are moral reasons, too, to engage in such research. As the anthropologist Russell Bernard writes, "Objectivity does not mean...value neutrality. No one asks Cultural Survival Inc., to be neutral in documenting the violent obscenities against the indigenous peoples of the world. No one asks Amnesty International to be neutral in its effort to document state-sanctioned torture. We recognize the power of the documentation is in its objectivity, in its irrefutability, not in its neutrality." Thus, we should neither pretend to be neutral nor strive for neutrality. We should strive for objectivity in whatever we do. If the results of an objectively performed research project turn out to support one or another political side and withstands criticism of methods and replication, so be it. We would all be better informed by it, if only we discarded the assumption that any research that has political implications must be, by its very nature, tainted by an incorrigible bias that determines results in advance.
Thus, the argument about the worst presidency should not linger on whether there is bias involved. Instead, it should be focused on the standards by which historians measure the merits of a good president. I recall that Wilentz was assessing Bush according to the standards widely adopted by historians, the community of observers of which he is a part. If you don't like the judgement passed, dispute the standards. Or, if you accept the standards and still don't like the judgement, dispute the evidence. But don't dismiss the assessment outright just because of a few biases that may or may not have affected the outcomes of the investigation. (By "you", I don't mean you, personally, but "you" in a general advice-giving way.)
And, regarding the passage of time issue - I think Wilentz defends himself adequately here. I would like to add, however, that Bush has already completed a presidential term, and that he has not significantly altered the course of action he started then. Why shouldn't this history-making continuity interest historians?
Frederick Thomas - 5/24/2006
this is directly and powerfully said. The only thing the far left does well is kill millions of citizens, yet they perceive themselves as saviors.
Bunch of losers. No wonder they hang around schools their whole lives through.
Frederick Thomas - 5/24/2006
With respect, something of which you seem but little aware, being of the hard left, you stated, "if those who wanted to impeach Clinton," implying that they did not succeed. They did.
And I mentioned nothing about "...big whopper lies are okay, but lying about some sexual encounter is just too much for America, huh?" That came entirely from your fevered imagination and George Soros, your fearless leader.
The charges under which Clinton was impeached were not "... lying about some sexual encounter," which no doubt stands as a badge of honor for the hard left, as is lying generally, but purjury under oath, for which the scumbag was properly disbarred. The charges not carried forward, though credible, concerned Clinton's rape of Juanita Broaddrick.
So much for the lefties' self image of perceptivity. Why not give it a rest while your ego is still standing?
Jason B Keuter - 5/24/2006
I think you are holding your punches a little bit regarding the historical profession. Post-modernist and other labels are misleading. The history you're describing is left-wing history, or, more accurately, Marxist history and labels like "post-modern", "social", "new" are disingenuous. There are a thousand variations on the Marxist theme but those simply provide cover for what is a very simplistic view of historiography - namely, there is a power elite and history is part of the intellectual superstructure that keeps that elite in place. Accepting the most accurate label of Marxist history would burden Marxist historians with the history of Marxist regimes, which the left has always run away from. The history of revolutionary regimes is highly problematic for the leftist intellectual because those regimes were created and often run by leftist intellectuals.
The "power structure" of which leftist intellectuals speak is a bogeyman that necessitates their continued domination of the only institution on the right side of G...I mean history: the university. There is no power structure, there is no self-perpetuating elite - but to admit as much would eliminate the manichean struggle the leftist pretends is going.
The reason communists aren't called communists is because the communist will accuse the truthful labeller of being "anti-communist", which necessarily means that they are a vicious narrow minded agent of repression. Fearing this label, the up until this point honest intellectual becomes complicit in a fraud, granting the communist/Marxist an identity that frees them from any accountability for the gross moral catastrophe that resulted from that ideology. The politicization of history is not inevitable: the Marxist insists that all history hitherto has been the history of the ruling class but from this point forward, it will be the history of the powerless and will thus play a vital role in weakening that ruling class. What it really does, however, is create a climate of intellectual repression, a not so surprising result of the primacy of the "new" left historians - a result easy to anticipate were it not for the politicization of history that they justify by arguing that pluralism and intellectual diversity is a capitalist ruse.
Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 5/24/2006
Yes, indeed. "Unfit for Command" comes to mind, by John O'Neill. It was possibly the most important political book since Thomas Paine.
Rob Willis - 5/23/2006
I would add that some extraordinary work is being produced by amateur historians, who don't suffer from the need to be recognized by the "club", but suffer exposure problems for the same reason.
Sometimes, it is to weep.
Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 5/23/2006
You can read century-old accounts of the Civil War which are dreadfully one-sided, depending whether written from the Northern or Southern point of view... The big problem today is that academicians have only one point of view, while a majority of voting Americans embrace the opposite one.
This could be why, as someone said recently, the universities have become nearly irrelevant, with most of the useful scholarship being handled at think tanks. Put another way, the universities have become so uncongenial that conservatives have chosen to do their work elsewhere.
Jeffrey W Pickron - 5/23/2006
I love how Mr. Thomas writes that Clinton "WAS impeached" but "avoided" removal. He can't even correct an imaginary error without restating his own bias, implying that the House action was just but Clinton somehow wormed his way out of what the Senate "really" should have done. Mr. Wilentz has nothing to learn about objectivity on these pages.
Larry DeWitt - 5/23/2006
I am flattered that Professor Wilentz has bothered to reply to my criticisms of his Rolling Stone essay. He was provoked, no doubt, by what he considers grievous errors in my article. But just for the record, I want to make sure my errors are distinguished from Professor Wilentz's misreadings. Misreadings which, I am sure, are entirely my fault, due probably to my polemical prose style.
First as to my general thematic points:
There is, I concede, a fundamental difference of opinion between us about the degree to which it is appropriate for historians to intermix current political concerns with their historical scholarship. I also concede that Professor Wilentz's view is more the prevailing one and mine a fringe view. It is not Wilentz I am criticizing so much, as this prevailing attitude in the discipline. It is just that Professor Wilentz happens to offer a particularly vivid example of that prevailing philosophy in action.
My reading of the history of the discipline is that beginning roughly in the late 1960s historians began--as one aspect of a broad postmodern critique of traditional historiography--to argue that historical scholarship is inevitably political and that historians should stop kidding themselves on this score. According to this critique, the modernist scholars hid their politics underneath layers of merely apparent objective scholarship. Thus traditional historians were indicted as implicit racists, implicit sexists, implicit imperialists, and implicit conservative hegemons, among other things. One cohort of the scholars of the New History thus began an attack on the discipline to correct these perceived flaws, by using an overtly politicized philosophy of history as one of their tactical weapons. Their premise was that historical scholarship is inescapably political and so historians were given broad permission to intermix their historical analysis with their own political concerns so as to change the political culture in ways more to their liking. There is certainly much more to the postmodern critique than this, but I see this politicization of scholarship as being very much a core agenda item of the postmodernists.
I readily concede that Professor Wilentz has been a strong opponent of many forms of radical postmodernism. I regret not explicitly saying so in my original commentary. My contention is only that in this one aspect of the postmodern critique--the promiscuous intermingling of politics and scholarship--Wilentz is sleeping with the enemy.
I assert that this permissiveness as regards politics undermines objectivity in historical scholarship. Its most immediate impact is to cause consumers of our scholarship to distrust our work because they recognize in it politics with which they disagree (or even politics with which they agree). The long-run impact is to undermine the ideal of objectivity as a shaping and limiting constraint on historical scholarship. This is my principle concern and the view that lies beneath my critique of the Rolling Stone piece.
Beyond these broad philosophical points, there are a few plausible misreadings in Professor Wilentz's reply that might stand a word or two of clarification.
I regret my use of the expression "spurious scholarship effect" in describing the Rolling Stone essay, because I now see that it can be mistaken for a remark about the historical analysis in the essay. I did not intend to suggest that Wilentz's historical analysis was in any way faulty. My claim is only that this historical scholarship surrounds points that are purely political. This use of historical analysis to cushion a political agenda, is the combination that I find objectionable. In other words, I am accusing Professor Wilentz of using quite valid and learned historical scholarship as shield and lance in political cause. Used in this way, the historical analysis lends an umbra of credibility to the politics, in what I typically characterize as a "spurious scholarship effect." The spurious part is the cover the scholarship gives to the politics. Not much better, perhaps, from Professor Wilentz's perspective, but at least my accusations should be a little clearer.
My more general point here is that Wilentz's essay is crafted to a political aim, that aim being to strike a political blow against the Bush administration and its policies. I don't think he would dispute this--but if he does, I am certainly willing to engage a point-by-point analysis of the particulars. It is just that I thought we could dispense with this and move right to the philosophical issues. My thesis is that using historical scholarship in the service of such overtly political aims, cheapens that scholarship--even if that scholarship is itself otherwise impeccable.
Likewise, I did not intend to impugn Professor Wilentz's account of the history of the impeachment process. Nor do I even disagree with him--as a matter of my own political judgments--about the Republican efforts to impeach Bill Clinton. It is only that I recognize that these are my political judgments, and I admit they cannot be certified by "the judgment of history." To suggest that they can, is, in my view, a misuse of history.
Probably the most fundamental misreading here--and again, I accept that it is entirely my fault--is the idea that I am somehow engaged in disputing Professor Wilentz's views on the Clinton impeachment or the Bush presidency. Thus he feels obliged to take me to the woodshed for failing to address the substance of his historical analyses on these two central topics.
I did not engage Professor Wilentz's specific arguments on the Clinton impeachment because: a) I tend to agree with him; and b) I consider the whole idea of speaking in the authoritative voice of historical scholarship about such an obviously political issue, to be illegitimate--regardless of which side one takes in the debate. Likewise, I did not engage his detailed arguments about the Bush presidency, for the same two reasons.
It is not that I have some other politics than the liberal politics of Professor Wilentz, and that I am trying to argue my conservative interpretation against his liberal interpretation. I realize that is the usual and expected form here, and that is precisely the problem. This kind of political contention over historical scholarship is precisely what I think needs to be avoided. My position is that the idea of historians, qua historians, arguing for any politics is usually illicit--even if they happen to be arguing for politics with which I agree (as is the case here).
I am offering a much more radical critique of the history discipline. I want us to be like Caesar's wife. I think that when articles like Professor Wilentz's appear, it undermines the reputation of the discipline, and our claims to objectivity, because the article is so obviously politically-charged. What typically happens is that readers who share his politics cheer him on, and readers who have the opposite politics rail against him. Which is a strong clue that something more than objective scholarship is involved here. (Which is the same clue I was suggesting we could read in the partisan response to his Clinton impeachment testimony.)
What I think we have seen in recent years is the discipline of history degenerating into just another forum for the politically-interested, nakedly partisan, contestations that characterize too much contemporary political discourse. And with essays like this one, I think Professor Wilentz has to bear some measure of the blame for this development.
Lisa Kazmier - 5/23/2006
So, where did I say something inaccurate, since I never say Clinton was or was not impeached? I only mention those that wanted to do it, which was in response to what was said (the brightening factor).
Apparently, big whopper lies are okay, but lying about some sexual encounter is just too much for America, huh? The main problem is that no one wants sees replacing Bush with Cheney. A wounded Bush is better.
Frederick Thomas - 5/22/2006
Respectfully, Clinton WAS impeached, by the House. He avoided being removed from office by the Senate.
Precision is important in the Bush-bashing business.
Frederick Thomas - 5/22/2006
It would be a mistake in my opinion to base your entire judgment of Mr. Bush on his speech pattern, which has been a big advantage for him with most voters, as has his drinking history. The fact that he outscored Kerry at Yale was probably a disadvantage to him.
Unlike elitists who believe they know everything from speech patterns, Bush concentrates on getting a simply-worded message out. Elitists believe that speech pattern is everything, which is why they are always surprised when he pounds them so badly in elections.
Cary Fraser - 5/22/2006
One of the fundamental questions that historians have to address, now, and in the future, when evaluating Bush is: How does someone who appears incapable of using his native language to organize his thoughts become the leader of a highly literate society?
The historical evaluation of Bush as President will need to be set within the context of his times, not only by comparison with his predecessors.
Seth Cable Tubman - 5/22/2006
Mr. Wilentz, I am reading "The Rise of American Democracy", and am finding to be masterful. But the 19th century and its politics, are far different than the 21st century. My advice? Stick to your field of study as prescribed in your Ph.D. from Yale, or get a doctorate in political science. Until then, keep working on the history thing, and let the political analysts and political science professors deal with politics. You'll do everyone a far better service as an objective historian than as another shrill partisan of the Left. We have enough of us as it is! Thank you. Sincerely, Seth Tubman
Lisa Kazmier - 5/22/2006
Just what isn't "objective" here? Does that mean anyone assessing evidence, even say "did Richard III kill the two princes in the Tower of London?" is wrong? Or say who may or may not have been Jack the Ripper?
Seems to me that anyone whose assessment of the Bush administration is negative MUST be biased. How about if we asked a different question: if those who wanted Clinton's impeachment are going to be brightened, what about considering this administration's dealings on intelligence and Iraq? Lying about sexual indescretions is impeachable but lies about "we know where the WMD are" and "we don't want the proof to be in the form of a mushroom cloud" and "Iraq attempted to purchase yellowcake from Nigeria" aren't even worth an inquiry?
Who exactly is being biased? It seems to me the easy dismissals of "oh, historians are biased" etc. kinda like "the liberal media" myth IS a bias worth examining.
William L Ramsey - 5/22/2006
If ALL historians were not divorced from COMMON REALITY, what sorts of conclusions do you think they would likely come to on major issues like the Holocaust, Shoa casualties, southern slavery, etc.? I, for one, would join you in applauding a return to OBJECTIVE ANALYSIS.
samuel D. Martin - 5/22/2006
MARK- THAT STILL DOES NOT TAKE THE SKEWED POLITICAL ANALYSIS OUT OF THE EQUATION. HISTORIANS NEED TO GET BACK TO OBJECTIVE ANALYSIS,IF THEY EVEN CAN,WHICH I HIGHLY DOUBT. THEY ARE ALL PRODUCTS FOR THE MOST PART OF A WORLD DIVORCED FROM COMMON REALITY.
mark safranski - 5/20/2006
Professor Wilentz wrote:
"I sought to understand and explain why, by a lopsided margin, historians considered the Bush Administration an enormous failure, and why, even two years ago, a considerable number of historians considered Bush the worst president in history."
The political locus of the historical profession being well to the left of the mainstream has something to do with that.
As does the passions of proximity; it is harder to be objective about recent political events as those of a century or a thousand years earlier.
That being said, I agree with Wilentz that historians ought to weigh in on Mr. Bush or any other contemporary figure. We simply have to take their assessment in the context in which it is offered.
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