HNN Poll: How Historians Rank the Presidency of George W. Bush (2008)


Mr. McElvaine is Elizabeth Chisholm Professor of Arts & Letters and Professor of History at Millsaps College. His latest book, Grand Theft Jesus: The Hijacking of Religion in America, will be published by Crown in March.

Deadline Extended! Responses will be accepted through March 24.

“As far as history goes and all of these quotes about people trying to guess what the history of the Bush administration is going to be, you know, I take great comfort in knowing that they don’t know what they are talking about, because history takes a long time for us to reach.” — George W. Bush, Fox News Sunday, Feb. 10, 2008

An HNN Poll conducted in the spring of 2004 asked historians to assess the presidency of George W. Bush to that point. That informal, unscientific poll attracted a great deal of attention. It is now four years since that poll was undertaken and there have been many requests that it be updated. In this, the final year of Mr. Bush’s presidency, it seems an appropriate time to conduct another survey of historians on how they rate the Bush presidency at this point.

Only professional historians may participate in this poll. (Independent historians are welcome.) Please email your response. (Copy and paste this page into your email.) Be sure to include your name and school affiliation. Responses will be accepted through March 24, 2008.

We will limit the survey to two questions, followed by an opportunity to give comments:

1. On balance, do you consider the presidency of George W. Bush to have been a success or failure?

Success ___

Failure ___

2. Forty-two people have been president of the United States. At this point, where would you rate the presidency of George W. Bush in comparison to those of the other men who have held the office?

Best Ever ___

2-10 ___

11-20 ___

21-30 ___

31-41 ___

Worst Ever ___

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More Comments:

Armando Pereira - 6/30/2008

David you do Alvernia College and yourself a real disservice with your sophmoric comments.

Robert Lee Gaston - 3/22/2008

I may be a bit too soon for a critical historical analysis of the Bush Administration. I suppose there is some sort of historical methodology still happening. As to the academic community’s politics, there is little doubt as to their leanings.

David Silbey - 3/19/2008

"Your comments have been most revelatory, thanks for the peek inside. You've nicely proven my point -- which is that comments exchanged in web forums tell readers a great deal about people, more so than they were able to glean about each other in the past."


Maarja Krusten - 3/19/2008

Your comments have been most revelatory, thanks for the peek inside. You've nicely proven my point -- which is that comments exchanged in web forums tell readers a great deal about people, more so than they were able to glean about each other in the past.

David Silbey - 3/18/2008


Maarja Krusten - 3/18/2008

Thank you for the thoughtful observation, I thought about that after I posted my comment yesterday. Yes, some historians definitely made their views known during the Vietnam War. I knew that and thought later I should have taken the time to acknowledge that in my original comment. I was sure someone would point that out to me!

Having worked once to screen Nixon's tapes, I certainly know how he and his aides felt about numerous opponents to the war. The public later learned the same from released portions of the tapes as also from H. R. Haldeman's published diary. Some of those opponents were academics. As you say, some historians published Letters to the Editor, submitted op eds, signed ads, and so forth. Being old enough to have been an undergraduate during the last years of the Vietnam War, I certainly remember hearing about how some historians felt about it directly.

Since I've had numerous letters to the editor published over the years on other topics, I know a little about the process. Newspapers appear to have certain standards and letters go through an editing process. What is published is not always precisely what the writer submitted, althouh I've been lucky to have most of my letters published very closely, and sometimes exactly, as I submitted them.

But how much did we know about the human beings behind the letters, ads, and op eds? Much less than we know now. I think one day linguists and communications experts will have a lot to study when they look at Internet forums. Blogs can have a straight from the gut quality. This can be good or bad, depending on how aware the writer is of how he or she comes across. And what his or her intent is. Also, unlike with letters to the editor, one gets to see how a writer deals with readers, with dissenting opinion, etc. That for me is the most interesting and educational part of reading blog essays.

Thanks again for taking the time to read my thoughts and for responding on the point about Vietnam.

Maarja Krusten - 3/18/2008

What is your use of the word "congratulations" intended to convey? You've used it twice now in these exchanges. I'm having trouble seeing how it fits in here, based on how I use the word normally (sharing joy with a friend who gets promoted, publishes a book, has a baby, gets engaged, etc). Here, all I'm doing is sharing my thoughts and observations, musings if you will, something I've always thought fit the purpose of HNN. I'm always happy to accept congratulations on my accomplishments but the term doesn't seem to fit here in a setting where people simply are sharing their differing observations.

John Edward Philips - 3/18/2008

That would eliminate Buchanan from comparison, thus leaving Bush without competition for the worst ever rank.

David Silbey - 3/17/2008

"But we won't know how particular historians voted."

And again, I go back to my original response. You've discovered that historians are biased and--like everything else--should be treated with care. Congratulations.

Your second point--that the bias of historians is now more public because of blogging--is not relevant to your first point. Public or not, the bias exists and affects the result.

vaughn davis bornet - 3/17/2008

I feel certain I am right when I say that a large number of well known historians made their views exceedingly public during Vietnam by joining in a full page Advertisement in the New York Times. A copy may be in my archives at Hoover Library, but it would be far easier just to check the NYT Index one way or another. I would start with 1968 and go both ways. I am quite certain I read it only after the fact, so the basic list was not AHA or MVHA. A pure guess: Heritage Magazine's list? Did the effort begin at Columbia Univer-sity? I was very aware of it at the time.

Also, Letters to the Editor were very commonly publicly signed by academics in those years. And, for example, my 14 speeches mostly involving Vietnam in some way (holidays) were published privately (100 copies) as Speaking UP for America: Bicentennial Speeches from the Rogue River Valley. I have drafted a new Preface and may reissue that, as a hobby.

What I am saying is that in the Past the historians of my Day did not hide their views, not really.

vaughn davis bornet - 3/17/2008

I participated in well known polls of historians on Presidents many years ago. I hate to admit that my last time, much more than a decade ago, I finally just let it slide. Too many presidents had become dim in my memory to be ranked, say, 28th or 22nd. Too bad, for historians and political scientists are clearly a liberal Democrat bunch, although most spend a lifetime in efforts to be "fair." When the late chairman of History for three decades at Stanford assessed the presidencies of Franklin Roosevelt as a "tragedy" after major research aimed at appraisal, the fraternity's reviews were acid. Today, many items in his case are grated, but not his conclusion. So be it. Enough of this. Fairness toward President Hoover will never come, evidently, nor will his Library in West Branch even be visited by the historians who have read not a word of Hoover's 34 books. Nevertheless, this writer has pretty silently barely endured the Bush presidency and cannot wait for it to exit and be replaced by almost anybody. Somehow, he remains cheerful in public to the very End. I could piece together a little essay of Positives, no doubt, say, for a textbook, but it wouldn't be a pleasure. Good intentions (to bring democracy to the Middle East and to make the U.S. the major player in world affairs, to further Christian values everywhere, and to create new generations of better educated youth, just do not add up to Accomplishment, in my quiet view from a small town in my very old years. LIke Bush, I feared nuclear bombing of the federal establishment ten year down the line, and like him, apparently sound and widely accepted Intelligence fooled me into my fears and apprehension. But he was charged with making and executing a long-range Plan, and here, he Failed utterly. Unwilling or unablea to take the American people with him into his war, stupidly making no effort to pay for it, using immature judgment in many a decision enroute, he cannot be saved by any Actions of his final months--all in my opinion as I contemplate the unquestionable tragedy of this President Bush. That he did have Intentions that read well enough makes it all the sadder.

Maarja Krusten - 3/17/2008

But we won't know how particular historians voted. We'll get a total result but no breakdown which would enable me to see that Historian X (of whom I might say, oh, X blogs, but while I can get glimpses of past voting patterns, he or she seems to apply scholarly methodologies and a reasonable tone to his or her web posted assessments) ranked Presidents this way. And Historian Y (who uses tendentious language in blog essays and seems to enjoy beating down people who don't agree with him or her) voted that way.

We can't screen the total results for the presence of bias or anger or whatever else readers can glean from blog essays about the personal and professional character and psychology of the blogging historian. (It's amazing how much people reveal.) I'm much more interested in the way a professor X might rank Presidents than a professor Y. Both will be in the mix in responding to such a poll, however. And present and former government historians, those who actually have worked with people who make policy decisions, or even participated in predecisional discussions, and bring different insights into the process or governance, seem to be excluded altogther.

Lorraine Paul - 3/17/2008

To be honest, Maarja it would surprise me if bias wasn't shown in assessing GWB. His presidency has not been a shining light for many in the US and elsewhere.

Remember, just as paranoids have enemies, bias may not be all bad. I am biased against anyone who starts a war on lies, spies on ordinary people, destroys the fabric of society by giving tax cuts to the very people who don't need. Who tries to cover-up for his cronies. Who even now is refusing to accept that congress represents ALL Americans, not just those who voted for him and his 'gang'!

I consider John Howard to be the worst Prime Minister this country has ever had. However, I don't consider myself biased, just looking at things clearly. Since he lost office he is now rubbishing the new Australian government to US vested interests.

I often wondered what he would not stoop to, and now it looks as there isn't anything beneath him.

As my middle-class grandmother would say...as low as a miner's lavatory!

David Silbey - 3/16/2008

"Those biases always may have been there, for some, but the extent to which historians now blog has lifted the veil that once shielded some of them."

That's a different point than the one you made originally. That the biases of historians may affect their ranking the Presidents is no doubt true. But it has always been so. That those historians now expose their biases more is a *good* thing, as it enables readers to understand how a particular historian may be prejudiced.

Maarja Krusten - 3/14/2008

Those biases always may have been there, for some, but the extent to which historians now blog has lifted the veil that once shielded some of them. Individual historians always will handle their biases differently, some better, some worse. I am interested in the extent to which some historians simply don't seem to mind spilling their guts and even ranting about current events and officials in informal blog essays. The choice of words, which suggests the level of disdain for people who disagree with their political views, is palpable in some web posted essays that I've read over the years.

The study of history suggests that there always are things that are not known as events unfold, that government archives over time provide fresh perspective. (Think recent revelations about the Gulf of Tonkin incident, for example.) Good historians acknowledge this, although that doesn't come through in every essay I've read by an academic or government historian on the web.

Some historians during the Johnson Administration may have had heated exchanges in private about the Vietnam War but the public at large was not privy to them. Not so now, we're in era of transparency for some members of the academy now, at least as far as some bloging historians are concerned. What I've seenh changes the way I look at how historians as a class rank Presidents. Some of them no longer no longer appear to be the mythical, sober judges of past events that they once seemed. That this is so is their own choice, of course.

David Silbey - 3/12/2008

You have discovered that historians have their own biases and prejudices. Congratulations.

Maarja Krusten - 3/4/2008

In "words chosen may reveal biases which may or may not actually exist" I meant "suggest" rather than reveal.

Maarja Krusten - 3/4/2008

The Internet age allows wide dissemination of the views of historians through various mechanisms, from individual blogs to essays posted on sites as HNN. I've looked in a number of them. Whether they write formal essays or informal blog postings, some academics consistently present their views on current events in a thoughtful, scholarly manner. Even when I disagree with them, I respect the ones who take that approach. It's what I learned in grad school when I studied history.

Other historians use tendentious language that suggests ingrained bias. Some of that simply may reflect insularity or a lack of awareness that the words chosen may reveal biases which may or may not actually exist. Occasionally, I've even seen a few academics rant and rave and spew rage in public in ways that does little to bolster confidence in their professional judgment.

How can we know which of these types of historians are partaking in such a poll? How can we be sure that they all have the ability to separate whom they voted for as citizens from their assessment of a sitting President? We don't. The historical community does not use formal declarations of impairments or the filing of Statements of Independence.

Generally Accepted Government Auditing Standards (GAGAS) state that "When auditors use the work of a specialist, auditors should assess the specialist’s ability to perform the work and report results impartially as it relates to their relationship with the program or entity under audit. If the specialist’s independence is impaired, auditors should not use the work of that specialist."

The standards also state that "Auditors participating on an audit assignment must be free from personal impairments to independence. Personal impairments of auditors result from
relationships or beliefs that might cause auditors to limit the extent of the inquiry, limit disclosure, or weaken or slant audit findings in any way. Individual auditors should notify the appropriate officials within their audit organizations if they have any personal impairment to independence."

Audit agencies rely on carefully crafted internal controls. They also undergo peer reviews which check on methodologies and application of GAGAS. Unfortunately, while you can open up an auditor's report and read a statement that says its approach and methodology conform to GAGAS, we have nothing similar through which to judge the assessments of this or any other President by the respondents to this type of poll. I would hope most of the historians would fall into the first category I described above, the people I respect. But we'll never know the breakdown.

HAVH Mayer - 3/3/2008

I think it's more interesting to consider GWB's ranking among two-term presidents -- tells more about the American electoral process and electorate, in any case.