Vincent J. Cannato: Time's on Bush's Side

[Vincent J. Cannato teaches history at the University of Massachusetts in Boston.]

After the 2004 election, a number of terribly depressed people at my university told me what a shame it was that President Bush had been reelected. If only people knew history, they lamented, they would never have voted for him.

It must be a comforting thought that this abstract thing called "history" can give us the wisdom to choose the right president, as if history books were Ouija boards and historians were modern-day oracles.

Certainly, some historians see themselves that way. In early 2004, just three years into the Bush administration, an "informal, unscientific survey of historians" by the History News Network found that more than 80 percent believed that the president was already a failure. And a miserable one at that.

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.

Historical and popular judgments about presidents are always in flux. Dwight D. Eisenhower used to be considered a banal and lazy chief executive who embodied the "conformist" 1950s. Today, his reputation has improved because of more positive appraisals of his Cold War stewardship. Ronald Reagan, whom many historians dismissed as an amiable dunce, has also had his stock rise. On the flip side, Bill Clinton's presidency looks somewhat different after Monica Lewinsky, the bursting of the dot-com bubble and 9/11 than it did in 1997.

Perhaps Bush can take solace in the case of Harry S. Truman, who was reviled at the end of his presidency, with approval numbers hovering around 30 percent. Too liberal for conservatives and too conservative for liberals, Truman was saddled with an unpopular stalemate in the Korean War and accusations of corruption at home. Many saw him as a belligerent rube, too unsophisticated for the White House....

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Michael J Pearce - 12/6/2006

...are not made in the months or immediate years following their tenure.

I am glad to see you post this.

One problem they will face now and in the future is the trend to live in the now, which will cause so many quick judgements on everything.

This is a shame, as it often takes years to truly see the ramifications of an action.

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