The Follies of Instant History: Another Meaningless Poll of Historians
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.
We justify this short-circuiting of the processes of historical research by calling such predictions “tentative” assessments. Which is pretty much like saying we are sending the prisoner in the dock to prison, “tentatively,” before we have the trial to decide whether or not he is actually guilty. A genuine tentative assessment occurs when the first researched monographs and journal papers begin to appear, and historians begin to form their initial assessments of the results of this research. That’s what a real tentative assessment looks like. The one we have here is something else entirely.
The historians responding to the poll (perhaps with a handful of exceptions) have not done any actual research on the Bush presidency. How then can they possibly offer an historical assessment? They can’t. But what they can do is offer their own political opinions, under the guise of historical judgments. And that’s the game here—on both sides of this tug-o-war.
Bush has famously claimed that the verdict of history will be in his favor and that future historians will vindicate him, even if contemporary historians view his presidency as a failure. Indeed, the invitation to this poll (revealingly) is prefaced with one such quotation from the President. One thinks to ask: why the rush to judgment here? Why are historians so keen to go on the record with such an early assessment of the Bush presidency?
The felt-need to do something urgently, is really the desire to strike a political blow (for or against) the Bush Administration on the part of those answering this survey. If we are honest with ourselves here, we would admit that this poll is an expression of the desire on the part of many of those answering it to repudiate President Bush’s own self-serving judgment that future historians will vindicate his presidency. Those down-ranking Bush want to say to him: “No we won’t!” But this striking of blows—for or against—is not historical scholarship. It is politics parading under false colors. When historians undertake to rebut the President’s politically-motivated claims about history with their own politically-motivated counter-claims, they drag the repute of the history profession down to his same level.
Just in case anyone wonders, I am not asserting the need for restraint here because I am a defender of the Bush Administration. In fact, I have one of those “count-down” calendars on my desk, marking with hopeful anticipation the remaining days in the Bush presidency. But I recognize this is an expression of my politics, not my professional judgment as an historian. Those historians responding to this survey (wherever they place the Bush presidency) are all expressing their politics, without having the candor to say so.
It is not that I am myself entirely an innocent when it comes to the dark arts of the soothsayer. Like most of us, I enjoy these wacky polls; they are a lot of fun, provided we see them as the parlor games they are and do not pretend they have much of anything to do with our professional judgments. If you asked me my personal opinion, over a beer in the pub, I would say that I too expect the judgment of history to stuff George W. Bush somewhere near the bottom of the pile. But I like to think that I can distinguish my boozy speculations from my professional judgments.
But let’s be frank on one other point here: this poll and others like it are not being presented as a sociological survey of the political opinions of professional historians (in which role it might have some actual value). Rather, it is being crafted, presented, and is subsequently marketed, as the early verdict of history on the Bush presidency. This is indicated in all sorts of ways. For example, only professional historians may participate in the poll—which clearly suggests this poll is being represented as the professional judgment of the history profession. And that is how the news media report such polls, and it is how some of our colleagues use them as well.
If anyone wants to give the poll respondents the benefit of the doubt here, that temptation ought to have been erased by some of the responses that professor McElvaine included with his summary data from the 2004 poll, along with his own 13-point indictment of the Bush presidency. Among those rating Bush the worst president ever, we find these comments:
“Bush is horrendous; there is no comparison with previous presidents, most of whom have been bad.”
“He is blatantly a puppet for corporate interests, who care only about their own greed and have no sense of civic responsibility or community service. He lies, constantly and often, seemingly without control . . . He grandstands and mugs in a shameful manner, befitting a snake oil salesman, not a statesman. He does not think, process, or speak well, and is emotionally immature due to, among other things, his lack of recovery from substance abuse. . . .”
“George W. Bush's presidency is the pernicious enemy of American freedom, compassion, and community; of world peace; and of life itself as it has evolved for millennia on large sections of the planet. . . .”
Then there are the (many fewer, but just as revealing) comments that McElvaine reports from those who rated Bush positively. As McElvaine summarized their viewpoint:
Almost all of the historians who rate the Bush presidency a success are Reagan admirers. . . . “If one believes Bush is a ‘good’ president (or great),” one poll respondent noted, he or she “would necessarily also believe Reagan to be a pretty good president.” They also tend to despise Roosevelt. “There is no indication,” one historian said of Bush, “that he has advisors who are closet communist traitors as FDR had. Based on his record to date, history is likely to judge him as one of America’s greatest presidents, in the tradition of Washington and Lincoln.”
Then there are McElvaine’s own comments in summary:
That abuse of the patriotism and trust of the American people is even worse than everything else this president has done and that fact alone might be sufficient to explain the depth of the hostility with which so many historians view George W. Bush. Contrary to the conservative stereotype of academics as anti-American, the reasons that many historians cited for seeing the Bush presidency as a disaster revolve around their perception that he is undermining traditional American practices and values. As one patriotic historian put it, “I think his presidency has been the worst disaster to hit the United States and is bringing our beloved country to financial, economic, and social disaster.”
Some voters may judge such assessments to be wrong, but they are assessments informed by historical knowledge and the electorate ought to have them available to take into consideration during this election year.
All of these comments are perfectly legitimate political commentary, but they are not historical assessments. They are politics, pure and simple. (A poll which McElvaine hoped would be taken into account in the 2006 elections, and a new poll in the election year of 2008—can anyone seriously doubt this is, in large part, about politics?) Also, notice what sort of list McElvaine provided with his commentary on the 2004 poll. He listed 13 reasons why the Bush presidency should be rated as a failed presidency, and which he used to help him place this failure at the proper place in the list of failed presidencies. Where is the list of “pros” to go with this list of “cons?” Isn’t the presentation of both sides of the case the minimum that a real historical assessment requires? McElvaine was not providing an historical assessment (even a tentative one), he was making a case—which is a perfectly legitimate thing to do, but it is not historical scholarship, it is politics.
In his essay on the 2004 poll, McElvaine noted some of the objections I am making here—including the general notion that this kind of polling is premature, a notion which he simply dismisses. He also rebuffed the argument that the poll tells us more about the politics of the respondents than the subject of the poll, with this bit of reasoning: “. . . it seems clear that a similar survey taken during the presidency of Bush’s father would not have yielded results nearly as condemnatory. And, for all the distaste liberal historians had for Ronald Reagan, relatively few would have rated his administration as worse than that of Richard Nixon. Yet today 57 percent of all the historians who participated in the survey (and 70 percent of those who see the Bush presidency as a failure) . . . rate it as worse than the two presidencies in the past half century that liberals have most loved to hate, those of Nixon and Reagan.”
I am bound to say that this argument strikes me as little more than saying that it is okay to be biased against a current politician just so long as we have a relative measuring stick which we can use to show that we are relatively less biased against others. Might I also point out, that both Nixon and Reagan were no longer in office in 2004, and so our political passions have had time to cool regarding our disapproval of their politics, while our disapproval of Bush’s politics are still fresh and pressing concerns—which tends to impair our efforts at objective judgment.
Some may remember that I have beaten this particular tin drum before. Sean Wilentz and I exchanged words in these pages after the publication of his 2006 Rolling Stone essay in which he encouraged us to believe that the judgment of history is already in and that Bush is the worst president in American history. Indeed, Wilentz used the 2004 HNN poll as evidence of this thesis. As I wrote then:
One core methodological restraint on the folly of historians is the idea that there needs to be a significant passage of time before historians weigh in on a topic. There are lots of reasons for this. Lord Acton reminded us of one when he observed “The living do not give up their secrets with the candour of the dead.” Ranke was certainly expressing a fundamental principle of historical scholarship when he wrote, “I would surprise you if I asserted that archival study of periods slightly removed from our times has an advantage over a view of the present. But it allows us to recognize more completely and clearly the relationship of events than we can surrounded by contemporary passions and interests.”
. . . Wilentz reports on the Bush presidency by reviewing the flow of daily news stories and what we know about the surface view of current political events. What historians contribute to our understanding is a deeper, more thoughtful, more reflective view, from a longer perspective and a remove in time. Absent these attributes, we are not doing history, we are doing journalism or politics, wrapped in learned historical allusions and references to create a spurious scholarship effect.
It is not that I am just a crank about polls (the ones concerning long-past presidents—for whom we have actual historical scholarship—may be frivolous but they are usually not too tendentious). But I think larger themes are in play here. For some time now historians have been gradually moving away from the ideals of truth and objectivity in historical scholarship (convinced that these are mostly empty ideals—see Peter Novick’s classic, That Noble Dream).1 This tendency to conflate present politics with historical judgments is one of the core errors of the postmodern declension in our understanding of history. Although the raging debates over postmodernism have subsided somewhat, the passage of that contagion through our discipline has left what I call a postmodern residue in our philosophy of history.
One of the philosophical errors of the postmodern residue is confusion about the nature of truth in history. Many historians have now implicitly adopted a Consensus Theory of truth, in which they conflate the opinion of historians with the researched and reasoned results of historical scholarship. Thus taking an instant poll of historians is seen as a legitimate form of historical judgment. But it is not.
Valid historical judgments are ensured by those very processes of historical research and scholarship that are being short-circuited here. These processes must be engaged before we have any valid justification to claim that the results are a professional assessment. We literally do not have any historical knowledge until we have engaged the procedures of archival research, publication, peer review, etc., that are the hallmarks of historical knowledge. We have lots of speculations, and guesses, and opinions, but no actual historical knowledge. At this point, what we have before us is basically the journalists’ view of the Bush presidency. But there is a reason we do not award the Bancroft Prize to Keith Olbermann. The “informed opinion” of the community of historians, in advance of actual historical research, is just a report on the political views of this community, not the findings of history.
As I suggested in my commentary on the Wilentz essay, in addition to the usual methodological earmarks of sound historical scholarship, we ought to also adopt the constraint of what I called The Principle of The Decent Interval. As I put it in that context:
One of the most venerable games in Washington is naming public buildings after one’s political heroes. But the game [used to have] a sensible restraint: public buildings cannot be named for living individuals. This is done in order to reduce the amount of politics in this process—not eliminate it entirely, but to reduce it to more seemly levels. The intuition is that with the passage of time the passions of present partisanship will cool somewhat, and something more like an objective assessment can be made of just who merits such an honor.
The history profession needs something like the rule regarding the naming of public buildings. It should be against the canons of professional practice for an historian to offer historical assessments of political figures who are still in office and who are still making policies in the areas about which the historian presumes to comment. There should be a decent interval between the time about which an historian is commenting, and that historian’s own present moment. Without such a decent interval, it is inevitable that the historian’s historical assessments will themselves become part of the political debate. . . .
Sean Wilentz, like any concerned citizen, has both a right and a duty to try to influence public policy in ways he thinks desirable. . . . But he cannot pretend that, qua historian, he is giving us a professional assessment of the presidency of George W. Bush, while that presidency is still in motion. . . . Wilentz can say—as a political liberal—that he disagrees with Bush policy in a number of areas, and he expects these policies to turn out badly. But he cannot play the coy game of pretending that this is the objective assessment of the history profession—no matter how many historians are polled in similar gestures of the same arrogance.
We need to adopt The Principle of The Decent Interval between the subjects of historical scholarship and the historians who presume to write about these subjects. Without such a principle, historians just become politicians in disguise.
We have gotten ourselves into such a state in this regard that most historians no longer even see any problem here—they no longer see a principled distinction to be made between our present politics and our historical judgments. Indeed, I suspect few of my colleagues see anything wrong with this kind of poll, and think I am out on some fringe somewhere with my concerns. And I fear I am. That is the real tragedy of it: this conflation of politics with historical scholarship is so commonplace that old-fashioned historians like me have become fringe characters by stint of our unwillingness to move along with the postmodern crowd.
Simply put: it is foolish to think that historians can offer an historical judgment on the Bush presidency (even a tentative one) while that presidency is still in motion. We cannot short-circuit the processes of historical research and scholarship and produce anything remotely related to valid historical judgments.
1 I argue this thesis in detail and at length in a manuscript nearing completion, Truth and Objectivity in History: In Defense of Declining Virtues.
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Francis J. Chuck Theusch - 2/18/2009
07:00 Wednesday, February 18, 2009
There is a voice in the wilderness advancing the cause of truth and objectivity in History. The excessive politicization of scholarship runs the breadth and scope of Western academia.
Even the Weather Channel has become a forum for political correctness, lamented by its founder, John Coleman.
A larger issue is the politicization of the classroom at all levels. Very talented and, all in all excellent teachers and professors, in seemingly high percentage, fall prey to their political passions, using their classrooms as a periodic forum for advancng their personal political beliefs. This needs to be reigned in, how I don't know.
One would hope an appeal to certain principles of academic integrity and comitment to lofty ideals would help keep such inclinations in check at least somewhat.
As a Vietnam Combat Veteran come Lawyer come Historian I have made 25 returns to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia building Libraries. (libraryofvietnam.org)
Early on I met with Mr. Nguyen Ngoc Hung, NVA Veteran and Professor at Hanoi Univeristy, now Director of International Relations for the Ministry of Educatian and Training in Hanoi.
He has supported our library project from its inception nearly 10 years ago. He made a VERY INTERESTING observation at a dinner we had back in 2000:
"WE WILL HAVE ONE PROBLEM WITH YOUR WESTERN LIBRARY PLAN IN THE COUNTRYSIDE.WHILE WE HAVE NEVER REALLY HAD LIBRARIES AS YOU HAVE IN THE USA, WE DO HAVE READING ROOMS IN THE COMMUNES AND VILLAGES.
HOWEVER, PEOPLE DO NOT USE THEM BECAUSE OVER TIME THEY HAVE COME TO SEE THEM AS NOTHING MORE THE ECHO CHAMBERS FOR THE GOVERNMENT, mERELY FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF POLITICAL AGENDAS. AS WE OUTFIT LIBRARIES WITH BOOKS AND MATERIALS OF ALL KINDS WE WILL HAVE TO EDUCATE THE PUBLIC THAT THESE LIBRARIES CONTAIN A WIDE ARRAY OF INFORMATION----NOT JUST POLEMICAL WORKS.
"Not just polemical works"---in some ways much of US Scholarship has been so reduced and over time the loss of credibility will lead to dismissal of academic judgement by the public. The phenomenon already is in play.
This is unfortunate, and a poor legacy for this generation of scholars to pass on.
Francis J. (Chuck) Theusch
Library of Vietnam*Laos*Cambodia
John Olerud - 2/3/2009
Thank you Mr. DeWitt. If your viewpoint in on the fringe then I'm out there with you.
The American Historical Association's letter condemning the surge before it even took place alerted me to the tragic reality that you point out in your article, the "Noble Dream" is long gone.
Johannes De Silento - 1/30/2009
Sorry my Greek Unicode font did not translate into the post. Historia is what I meant to say, but most people should know that already.
Johannes De Silento - 1/30/2009
So I want to remain anonymous for fear that as an undergraduate history major who wants to go to grad school someone might read this and it might adversely affect my chances at a decent grad school.
One of the books responsible for my interest in history said that "Most history is guessing and the rest is prejudice." I think personally that judgments on presidents should be reserved until such time as a greater amount of information is made available. The word History comes from the Greek word ἰστορια and it means to investigate. As people who love history we would do well to keep this in mind. An investigation is not a spout. An investigation is a critical gathering of evidence that requires strict methodological standards concerning the validity and relevance of the data available. Having worked in a SCIF before I went to college I can tell you that the average time for declassifying information is 25 years. This period of time is considerably longer for information that is deemed extremely sensitive or is related too closely to existing capabilities.
As a former analyst I can say that no one will be able to put forward a decent historical assessment until such information is released. Too many variables remain unknown, for anyone to render a verdict on the George Walker Bush administration.
For example, what did France, Germany, and Russia say about WMD in the country studies put forward by their respective intelligence agencies? The failure to find WMD in Iraq does not necessarily mean that the United States was the only country that thought Saddam was in possession of such weapons. Such pieces of information add nuance to the historical record, and, regardless of the school of thought a historian aligns with, nuance is part of the job description.
In short I would like to say that refusing to admit ignorance is the height of prejudice. Is I don't know such a bad answer to the question of Bush's place in history? The post-modernist school likes to say that everyone is biased, and as a believer in the enlightenment I would like to reply that just because everyone is biased that does not mean that everyone is equally biased.
Kevin R Kosar - 6/6/2008
#1 A methodological question: How can historians, or anyone for that matter, come to an authoritative judgment of the competence of the sitting president? Sure, one might point to his actions or inactions on hot button policies and issues (the Middle East, the environment, etc.) that one reads about in the newspapers, but what of less well-known activities, like recent reforms of the federal rule-making process, or improvements in government procurement, or increased appropriations for arts education programs? The modern president heads the executive branch, a huge collection of agencies that pursues many, many policies on a bewildering range of issues. Assessing him on a few but not the many others seems like cherry-picking. yes, some issues, like war and peace, might be weighed more heavily than others. But, some attention must be given to the very broad range of policies pursued if oen is going to try to form a judgment.
#2 Related to this problem of comprehending and assessing the performance of a president, there is this challenge: How many historians have expertise in governance? How many are familiar with government management laws, the operations of OMB, the regulatory process, etc.? Probably few, in which case, who are they to assess the competence of a president?
#3 It is a fallacy to think that because one knows lots about one presidency (FDR's, Chester A. Arthur's, etc.) or American history generally that it makes one sufficiently expert to pass categorical pro/con judgments on the performance of other presidents, especially those who lived in very different times. (Obviously, the presidency and the entire American political and governance context has evolved rapidly and dramatically. Would George Washignton, a star in his time, have been a good President in the 1990s? It's difficult to say.)
In short, to those who sit in their tenured chairs and toss off quick and categorical judgments, I suggest this: do your profession honor and please display some humility.
Kevin R. Kosar
diggy zazz - 4/15/2008
Listen, you silly wank, there can be no question that Bush is the all-time worst president. The only caveat is that he was never really president because he stole both elections from the legitimate winner. That makes him a traitor who should be executed.
Patrick Murray - 4/12/2008
Maybe the HNN Poll might have asked the following question:
What will be the subtitle of your monograph on the GWB presidency?
"Eight Years of Bad News"
"Eight Years of Good News"
Maarja Krusten - 4/11/2008
Didn't proof read before hitting reply, sorry. "rather than many historians would have retreated into silence" should read "rather think that many historians would have retreated into silence."
Maarja Krusten - 4/11/2008
Thanks for taking my inclusion of the excerpt from Dr. Mann's work about experts and end users so well. I had no idea you were in IT. In a similar situation on HNN, I rather than many historians would have retreated into silence. That you did not -- and did not fire back a hotly worded defensive reply, either -- reflects well on you.
I, too, enjoyed our discussion, 'bye.
Rodney Huff - 4/11/2008
Q: Why should historians begin to compare this presidency to previous ones?
A: Because—if we take HNN’s slogan seriously—the past is indeed present, and the future as well.
The slogan implies people who know the past are among the best qualified to place current events in a meaningful historical perspective and to make predictions based on their knowledge of historical events and patterns. In fact, HNN is dedicated to identifying and showcasing news articles that approach current events—political events, too—from a historian’s perspective. Putting events in historical perspective not only injects the present with meaning, but also orients us to the future by suggesting the historical trajectory of our times.
The slogan also implies that if we, the people, are ever in need of a soothsayer, then historians are the best people to talk to about making wanted predictions. If historians do not step up in times of crisis, then political pundits and propagandists are free to monopolize prediction--people like William Kristol, who reassured us that the Iraq invasion was going to have “terrifically good effects throughout the Middle East” and that American soldiers would be greeted as liberators (http://hnn.us/roundup/comments/47434.html).
As for the HNN poll in particular—historians are perfectly justified to weigh in on the Bush presidency if they feel they have enough material to make fruitful comparisons. At the moment, they have at least 7 years worth of material, including a whole presidential term. The first term alone arguably provides enough material for such comparisons.
Perhaps, in the past, historians would not have been so justified in making relatively short-term assessments, and more caution would have been in order. However, these days, given the rapid pace at which historical changes occur and the capacity of a small group of elites to make history-making decisions, historians with any sense of social responsibility are obliged to see the past—as well as the seeds of the future—in the present, and to make value judgments accordingly.
As C. Wright Mills observed in 1956:
“During most of human history, historical change has not been visible to the people who were involved in it, or even to those enacting it. Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, for example, endured for some four hundred generations with but slight changes in their basic structure. That is six and a half times as long as the entire Christian era, which has only prevailed some sixty generations; it is about eighty times as long as the five generations of the United States’ existence. But now the tempo of change is so rapid, and the means of observation so accessible, that the interplay of event and decision seems often to be historically visible, if we only look carefully and from an adequate vantage point” (from The Power Elite, pp. 20-21).
Since 1956, the pace of historical change has only quickened, while the means of observation have been dramatically honed and made even more accessible. Just as the elites of today are in better positions to make history-making decisions, alert and vigilant historians are in better positions to observe history-in-the-making moments—and to compare these decisive moments with similar moments in the past—than earlier generations of historians who were obliged by the “slower” times in which they lived to be more cautious and fixated on their watches.
Q: Is history merely drift, the fateful push and pull of balancing socio-political forces that only become visible in the long-run, in which case historians are obliged in every instance to honor the Decent Interval rule?
A: Perhaps. Perhaps less so today than in the past. For today there is ample evidence that history is determined more and more by small groups of people who have the power to make decisions with history-making consequences—however intended or unintended these consequences may be—in the name of these United States and often behind closed doors. This power is exercised irresponsibly insofar as the decision-makers are not held accountable.
That some historians believe it’s their professional duty to sit on the sidelines of history while history is being made, and to refuse to see (at least in a professional capacity) the past repeating itself in the present; that some historians seem to have no conceptual grasp of the age in which we live—a nuclear age in which, as Mills observed more than half a century ago, we “have every reason to hold the American power elite accountable for a decisive range of historical events that make up the history of the present” (ibid. p.27)—amazes and frightens me.
Q: Who'll write the history of the nuclear holocaust?
Dennis Slough - 4/11/2008
Very nice ramble.
I'm in IT so when you said...
"It is not unusual to see two technical people meeting for the first time participating in a swift competition over jargon to see who is more technically competent..."
Back in the day our crude name for this exercise was "butt sniffing" as in sniffing out the big dog. But, in this context unless it got too ridiculous it was reasonably useful. Once it was out of the way, everyone knew how to weight the responses of each participant in our debates over any particular technical discussion.
And, with that I think I'll conclude. It's been nice exchanging views. But, don't be shy about calling out worst. Worst really is in a class by itself and gets it's own kind of treatment. Guess I couldn't resist one more opportunity to say, worst ever.
Maarja Krusten - 4/10/2008
You write that "I'm not an academic or historian (except as a life-long enthusiast.) It seems one purpose for this comment mechanism is to provide quick feedback to what the historians are posting and from a broad section of readers. Certainly there are some, um... less-than-academic postings going on."
I agree with you entirely that HNN has the potential to be a useful forum. In fact, I wish it worked better than it does as a way to bring together academic and government historians and history buffs. Unfortunately, I don't believe historians have used it very well as an outreach mechanism. In fact, I’m not sure how much historians think about outreach.
The McElvaine poll drew a lot of heated responses, in part for the reasons I've previously cited. Some of that may have been inevitable. But some of it could have been prevented.
What has struck me in reading HNN for four years now is that few academic historians think as tactically or strategically as they might. If members of a group have, as Mr. DeWitt suggests, a "felt-need" to do something in the political or public sphere, that requires laying some groundwork. This includes educating the public at large about how historians do their work, whether they try to screen out their political bias and if so, how; what they draw on in writing credible historical narratives; how that is dependent on access to records; how what they know changes over time, and how that affects the assessment of Presidents. I think historians also would have benefited in recent years from a debate over whether certain public actions, if taken, strengthen or actually weaken them in other areas. Sometimes one action can shut the door to other actions.
All of that requires some degree of self-awareness. I'm sure that such exists among historians. But it rarely shows up on HNN. Something apparently makes it terribly difficult to discuss what historians intend and how they come across. Sometimes what is intended comes across well, sometimes not. But discussing the underlying causes seems to be off the table here. If we could talk about that, it still wouldn't prevent some of the pissing contests that you sometimes see in this forum. But it would lay down more of a framework for what is going on than exists now.
I don't know to what extent any experts have assessed the history profession from the perspective of how its members comes across, individually and collectively. Such assessments can be very useful, however.
You would be surprised how often members of a profession don't realize how they come across. Joan Mann, a professor at Old Dominion University, captured this well in her paper, "IT Education's Failure to Deliver Successful Information Systems: Now is the Time to Address the IT-User Gap." This dealt with communication gaps that can develop with Information Technology (IT) professionals, people we historians rely on increasingly in these days of electronic record keeping. Inadvertent problems caused by insular thinking of the type Dr. Mann describes can crop up in other professions also, including, yes, history and various functions within government. Here is what Dr. Mann wrote in 2002:
"One issue related to communication/collaboration that may need to be addressed is the gap between the way technical majors are acculturated versus the way they need to behave when dealing with end users.
Acculturation is the process by which a human being learns the cultural traits of its societal group. It is not unusual to see two technical people meeting for the first time participating in a swift competition over jargon to see who is more technically competent (for a description of this dynamic in university Computer Science programs, see the work-in-progress (Margolis and Miller, n.d.). They label this pecking
order: the "I know more about computers than you do" hierarchy).
This behavior sends several messages:
• Your status comes from being able to 'out-jargon' those you meet
• You need to be obsessive about learning new jargon so that you won't lose face
• Never admit to not knowing something
• It is more important to appear knowledgeable than to be competent
• It is important to quickly size up a situation and come to a decision
On the other hand, this behavior is the exact opposite of what it takes to make an end-user comfortable.
Moreover, knowing that the end-user typically starts out with less technical knowledge, leads the analyst to assume they have lower status when, they are actually experts in their own discipline and often have more seniority. Plus, it leads to a tendency to quickly assume, he/she, as the technician, knows what the user wants. In reality, the user not only has useful knowledge about business processes and political considerations, they may also be able to contribute very useful expertise in the creation of an effective
and usable system in general (ex: public relations personnel may have good ideas on presenting information effectively."
Dr. Mann offers some interesting solution to this problem of how to work with people from different disciplines. Her paper is available at
Too often, I think historians don't do enough groundwork because they assume that others have a frame of reference for assessing their actions and statements that may not be there actually. As you point out, forums that bring together people from different disciplines can be useful. HNN has not lived up to its potential, although it does offer some useful insights, not just into history, but generally into how people view politics and how they communicate.
Sorry to ramble on so long but you comment really got me thinking!
R.R. Hamilton - 4/10/2008
... is not found in their views of the past, but in their predictions of the future. As the future is mostly a projection of the past, the best historians are the ones who can best predict the future.
What does this have to do with Bush 43? Not much. I predicted in 2000 that he would be a "mediocre" president -- in the line of the mediocrities of the 1850s and 1920s. Except for the economy, where he has fared better than I expected (though it may be fairly contended that he has done this through reliance on debt), I have seen no reason to revise my 2000 prediction.
So, all you people who fancy yourselves historians: Make predictions. Make predictions on a Hillary, or Obama, or McCain presidency. Make predictions on the economy or Iraq. All the rest is opinion -- which as Joe Sixpack is wont to say, is like assholes.
Dennis Slough - 4/10/2008
Your experience w/ the Nixon tapes must have been fascinating. The accountability you're talking about seems quite different from what I'm describing, ie. accountability to each other as citizens.
My point is it's one thing to wait and weigh the fuzzy middle, whether Reagan ranks in the top third, bottom third, or middle third. But, there is a bright line between worst ever and everyone else. Worrying over whether historians have waited long enough to comment on Bush is academic to the extreme.
We're living through historic times. The last time we had a worst ever President was 150 years ago.
Under these circumstances the right time for historians to weigh in is now.
I'm not an academic or historian (except as a life-long enthusiast.) It seems one purpose for this comment mechanism is to provide quick feedback to what the historians are posting and from a broad section of readers. Certainly there are some, um... less-than-academic postings going on.
The survey was a useful feature and I'd like to see it expanded.
Tim Matthewson - 4/9/2008
Watch out. The evil ones might be under your bed!
Maarja Krusten - 4/9/2008
If you want more info on journalist Dana Priest, see
posted br Smartphone
Maarja Krusten - 4/9/2008
You can go back and check or trace some aspects of journalists' stories about you, depending on the story and how they phrase assertions. Seymour Hersh once wrote about me:
"The [NARA Nixon tapes] group was led by Frederick J. Graboske, an intense and energetic native of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania., who had joined the National Archives in January of 1976. He and his colleagues were quiet and sturdy workers who understood that their political ideology must not interfere with their professional responsibilities. Graboske had voted for Nixon in 1968 and 1972 but had grown skeptical of his performance during Watergate. Maarja Krusten, who by all accounts was one of the most dedicated and talented members of the group, had been an enthusiastic volunteer in Nixon's 1968 Presidential campaign, and was until she put in some years listening to the tape recordings, at least, a Nixon admirer. She had worked on the staff of Senator Howard H. Baker, Jr., of Tennessee, a Republican. She was eventually put in charge of training archivists assigned to the Nixon-tape project. The Graboske group had a strong sense of mission and spirit. 'I enjoyed it,' Paul A Schmidt, of Salt Lake City . . . recalled. . . .
. . .Nixon and his attorneys did object [to the proposed release of Watergate tapes], in mid-1989, and they registered their objections by going directly to one of [then NARA Presidential Libraries chief John] Fawcett's deputies with a list of seventy deletions they required from the tapes to be released, none of them Watergate related. It was the same issue that had been haunting the processing of the former President's documents since 1977.
Nixon claimed that the archivists were violating his privacy. . . . Fred Graboske, unfortunately, was no longer around to lead the protests: after eleven years on the job, he had moved on to an important new archival assignment, in the White House. The fight was waged by Maarja Krusten and Paul Schmidt; Joan Howard, then the Archives' leading expert on the Nixon papers, joined them.
. . . Krusten, Schmidt, and Howard, among others, met in late August of 1989 with John Fawcett and protested Nixon's intervention.
. . . .Maarja Krusten later testified, in a deposition, that she had been appalled at Fawcett's insistence at the meeting that the Nixon deletions be recorded as archival actions. She quoted Fawcett as saying that 'he did not understand why we were so concerned' about how the deletions got recorded, "because the end result would be that [the tape] would be withdrawn from researcher use." At that point, she testified, Paul Schmidt responded that he did not 'fed comfortable lying to researchers' and that he 'objected to being asked to do something that was unethical, improper, and possibly illegal.' Krusten had already applied for another job: 'I did not like where the project was headed. . . .'"
Source: Seymour M. Hersh, "Nixon's Last Coverup: The Tapes He Wants the Archives to Suppress," New Yorker, December 14, 1992, passim.
Hersh's account of events at NARA can be compared against the apparent source documents, including deposition testimony by me and other National Atchives' officials and other court records in Kutler v. Wilson, Civil Action 92-0662-NHJ. Hersh's use of the phrase "by all accounts" at the beginning tells readers that the chatacterization of me comes from Archives' officials to whom he talked, rather than being Hersh's opinion.
Posted by Smartphone
Tim Matthewson - 4/9/2008
If Dana Priest won a prize that means it must be true! Didn't anybody learn about the critical use of sources in college? Aren't newspapers more often found to be in error? Have you ever had a newspaper story written about yourself? Reporters always get it wrong!
Maarja Krusten - 4/9/2008
I don't know whether you are an academic or not. I'll assume that you are and respond accordingly.
Having once worked as a government employee to open the discosable portions of the Nixon tapes as an official at the National Archives, I've had more opportunities to contribute to the area of records-related historical accontability for U.S. Presidents than most people who write articles and posts for HNN. If people who read HNN yearn for a need take action in areas relating to historical records and accountability, there are ways to do that. They can educate themselves on the challenges faced by the National Archives and join public policy debates in a knowledgeable, contextually sophisticated manner, on those difficult issues, That would be a useful, nonpartisan way of discussing one aspect of accountability.
I suspect your response to me was written in haste as it has a short hand quality to it that can be misinterpreted. For example, saying "people should say it" sounds as if it means you support group think.
As to special knowledge that historians bring to bear, it is precisely the knowledge that they don't immediately know everything which has separated the historical profession from other voters up to know. For example, a Democratic voter might have argued at the time of the Gulf of Tonkin incident that to question LBJ's actions was unpatriotic. If he never studied history he might even argue the same thing now. A good historian, on the other hand, regardless of party, would point to new revelations that cast a different light on that and other Vietnam era choices made by President Johnson. Sometimes, things do look different as the contents of records become available.
Posted on personal time
Dennis Slough - 4/9/2008
I was being ironic.
The notion that anyone has to wait even another 5 minutes to say what is obvious and that historians can't use their special knowledge to say it with more force *right now* is ludicrous.
Worst president ever.
People should just say it. It's the first step toward making accountability a national characteristic again.
Whatever your metric-- policies, performance, morality-- worst of all time.
Maarja Krusten - 4/9/2008
That you referred to Mr. DeWitt as level headed points up one of the differences between the political and the scholarly worlds.
I'm all for historians being level headed when they act in their professional capacities. How they act in their personal capacities (politically or otherwise) obviously is going to vary from person to person, depending on individual character and temperament.
What is interesting to see is how visceral and emotional are many of the comments posted under the McElvaine piece in reaction to the poll. When data is cited, its use often is selective and the presentations not balanced. I'm sure some day somebody will study and analyze what that means. Web forums capture fascinating data -- albeit from self-selecting participants -- which I believe will be a great future source not just for historians, but also political scientists, communication experts, linguists, and behavioral experts.
The political world always has had elements of raw emotion in it. Perhaps some of that comes from the fact that their political views can be central to how some people define themselves and their values, view themselves (one up, one down) in relation to others, and so forth. It can be very difficult for such people to separate the political from the personal, as a result.
I think the emotional element is one reason why discussions on purely political blogs -- or the ones that bring together people from across the political spectrum rather than serving as echo chambers -- often descend into middle school-type name calling and sandbox tactics. You once appeared to allude to that yourself, when in a comment on HNN you noted of a former President's opponents that "They couldn't attack his policies so they attacked him."
In historical debate among academics, raw expressions of emotion largely have been absent, at least in explicit form. That's not to say there aren't elements of rivalry, or jockeying for position, or attempts to play king of the hill within the academic world. There's going to be some of that in many professions, even that of historians. But I suspect things like that derive from different emotional needs than the desire to prevail politically. And it usually isn’t explicit in academic debate.
Given all that, to retain an academic tone when discussing the interaction of the scholarly and political worlds takes some skill and effort, I think. Mr. DeWitt seems to have succeeded in doing that, for which I thank him.
Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 4/9/2008
If contemporary historians were not polled on contemporary politics someone might consider their opinions to be valid on ancient politics, which makes this poll on presidents a useful prism. The average man knows nothing about Grover Cleveland or William McKinley, for instance, but he knows enough about recent presidents to note how rabidly biased current historians are, and that serves to alert him that they cannot be trusted about Cleveland or McKinley, either.
Dennis Slough - 4/9/2008
Blah blah blah. Mr. DeWitt saves his outrage, not for the worst president ever, but for the worst human ever. Thanks for being such a level head. Wouldn't want to waste outrage before desperation really sets in.
Robert Lee Gaston - 4/8/2008
An example of how history is distorted when we are too close.
He was secretly gravely ill and taking pain control medication throughout is presidency.
His only major domestic economic action was to drastically lower corporate income taxes and to virtually eliminate capital gains taxes.
His first attempt at personal diplomacy was such as failure that it actually increased the risk of war in Europe.
He nearly blundered into a nuclear war largely because of faulty intelligence.
He ordered ongoing efforts to have unfriendly heads of state killed, and is suspected of helping plan the overthrow and execution of one Asian leader.
He initiated a war that led to the deaths of over 45,000 Americans.
He kept a mistress, whom he ordered the Secret Service to slip into and out of the Whitehouse, who was also linked to underworld figures.
That’s John Kennedy. I found out a few years ago that he was being portrayed as the greatest American president in my grandchild’s public elementary school. Given that, I tend to discount the community of historians judgment regarding the quality of contemporary presidents.
By the way, the kid was in a private school within a week.
Maarja Krusten - 4/8/2008
I see this differently. Your use of the phrase "hacks, i.e. journalists" suggests that they are competitors to historians. I don't think most members of the public see them that way. I suspect most historians are secure in their sense of self and as accepting as I am of the opportunities and limitations offered by the career choices they made. I don't see Dana Priest, author of the series of news stories on Walter Reed army hospital that just won a Pulitzer, as less talented (or as someone to be feared or put down) as a good historian. As a journalist, she has a different role in dealing with current events and applies different skillsets than an historian does.
Historians are not involved in a zero sum game with journalists, who do not for the most offer in their work their own opinions. Journalists interview and where appropriate or useful for stories, report on others' opinions. Such material is derivative, it reflects, usually with attribution, what others think. Only the editorial page of a newspaper reflects original opinion or commentary.
Both professions include people of varying talents. We historians gain nothing by denigrating journalists as a group, that's not going to enhance what we do or make our profession seem superior. Our profession is strong enough and has sufficient value not to cast choices that way, in my view. I for one see no need to choose between HNN and a newspaper.
Posted by Smartphone on personal time.
Larry DeWitt - 4/8/2008
Thank you for your thoughtful comments.
Tim Matthewson - 4/8/2008
To repeat, I still think that we are better off having historians write contemporary or current history than we are leaving it to ill-trained hacks, i.e., journalists, people who as many of us have come to believe always get it wrong, and when talking about broad interpretive questions, such as Red States and Blue States, or who voted for whom and when, or whether there was WMD in Iraq, produce interpretations that intelligent people should find embarrassing.
Maarja Krusten - 4/8/2008
An interesting essay. Since you're addressing current events and how they should be assessed, you're likely to get heartfelt emotional reactions rather than scholarly or responses posted here.
When historians enter the political arena, if they aren't careful, they can add to their public burdens. As lecturers or writers, historians have to present sustainable and credible historical narratives. THey have to get it right, at least in the eyes of those they respect. (As with politicians, my experience on HNN has been that one of the hardest things for historians to say in a public forum is, "Thanks for pointing that out, I hadn't thought of that.")
When they turn to the political world, historians have to consider whether they also must take on the additional burden of supporting the generally accepted narratives of the political parties they represent. Because HNN deals so much in political issues, while you see some courageous and independent thinkers here, they are surprisingly fewer in number than one might expect from people trained in critical analysis, application of rigorous standards of research, and generally "the insight business." (I'm glad I'm a political Independent, myself.)
I don't see much likelihood of your arguments being countered effectively, much less demolished. I'm not here to do either, myself.
Most of the people who write essays or post comments about them on HNN never have worked with government records as source materials. Few have any experience in dealing with public policy issues as principals or as advisors. (Actually, come to think of it, entering local, state or federal government service as an historian, archivist or records manager is a nice option for any history major who wants to "feel relevant." Any of the three can lead to an enormously fulfilling career as a public servant.)
Most of the people who turn to HNN have given little thought to governmental source materials. You won't find many people who will debate here on HNN -- under your intelligently argued essay or elsewhere -- any public policy issues related to access to records. Few here could offer assessments of why President Bush issued E.O. 13233; why former NARA Information Security Oversight Office chief Bill Leonard expressed concern about E.O. 12958, as amended, and its application (the dangers of under- and over-classification); and why another former ISOO chief, Steve Garfinkel has said what he has about early disclosure. Or the purpose and function of the Presidential Libraries administered by the National Archives. To say nothing of strategies for countering the post-Watergate chilling effect on record keeping so eloquenhtly described once by John Earl Haynes on H-Diplo; the effect on national memory of electronic record keeping, why so few historians consider tactical choices when they enter the political arena, or anything of that nature. So you're way ahead in most of the points you make and likely to remain so.
BTW, did you see the interesting blurb about Bill Leonard in today's issue of Secrecy News? Of all the former NARA officials who recently have retired, I admire him the most. Really a man of integrity, someone I admire simply because he is focused on doing the right thing even in difficult situations. (That too is a topic that does not seem to resonate on HNN, curiously.) See item four at
and the earlier story at
Jim Lochrie - 4/7/2008
Robert S. McElvaine in debunking the poll taken of how Bush 2 stacks up against the other presidents he says:
"We justify this short-circuiting of the processes of historical research by calling such predictions “tentative” assessments. Which is pretty much like saying we are sending the prisoner in the dock to prison, “tentatively,” before we have the trial to decide whether or not he is actually guilty."
Isn't that exactly one of the reasons that Bush should be in the bottom five presidents. He locked up people tentatively (5 years) in Gitmo why he assessed whether to send them to trial to see if they are actually guilty.
So out of the mouth of Mr. McElnaine comes another reason for pushing Bush 2, down another notch to just above Buchanan.
Steven Patterson - 4/7/2008
The question of sources and the Bush administration is largely moot, since this White House has "lost" millions of emails relating to the Iraq war. The only sources left for the Bush Museum will be things like propaganda pics on aircraft carriers. We'll thus have plenty of "codpiece" history of Bush as leader, but little else. The dissenting views, as always with Bush, have been silenced or ignored.
Larry DeWitt - 4/7/2008
And what exactly is it that you see me being a partisan for?
Tim Matthewson - 4/7/2008
When I was in graduate school there were still those historians out there who adhered to the 50 year rule. That is, it's not history until at least 50 years have passed and all of the archives have been explored. Myself I tend to think that such caution is more to protect historians than protect the public from a rush to judgment. Historians tend to be pretty cautious as a group fearing that if they follow too closely on the heels of history, it is likely that historians will get their teeth kicked out. But if historians sideline themselves this does not means that the public will be bereft of opinion, the good, bad and the ugly; it merely means that people who are not prepared to render judgments (non historians) will be left free to render judgments without having to confront the opinion of persons equipped to make judgments. Even though we have imperfect information, I would rather read a blog like the History News Network than the vast majority of newspapers in the U.S. Even though we don't have to make an either or choice, if I were forced to make a choice between the HNN and the NY Times, I might well be tempted to choose the HNN, even though it carries some ill informed partisanship such as that by Larry DeWitt.
Frank Cousins - 4/7/2008
Is there not ample evidence of the proclivity of the Bush administration to mismanage and fail time and time again. Take for instance the Katrina debacle, or the outlandish reinterpretations of the constitution. Those two examples alone are fertile grounds for the need to label the Bush presidency the worst.
John D. Beatty - 4/7/2008
Re Ms Kazmeier's remarks above, which assures us that she cannot offer a dispassionate analysis of the Bush presidency simply because she doesn't want to.
Only long after the events can we really assess the "truth" of an event. Until that it's simply politics and current affairs.
Lisa Kazmier - 4/7/2008
The poll might be irrelevant yet so long as I breathe, this WH will not be referred to in any positive terms. For what? Name something positive if you're not part of the MIC or already a billionaire.
I dare you.
Jonathan Dresner - 4/7/2008
The present is the end result of historical processes: why shouldn't historians who have a strong sense of historical process comment in their professional capacity on the end result of historical processes?
The poll question is fundamentally irrelevant to historical research: nobody is going to publish a journal article or monograph (or Ph.D. thesis, or MA thesis; I might let a senior thesis writer get away with it, though) arguing whether the Bush presidency was better or worse than any other presidency except on exceedingly narrow grounds.
What do historians gain by practicing abstemious abstention from public discourse? A little dignity, perhaps, but is it enough to compensate for the constant indignity of irrelevance? I think not.
- Richard Hofstadter’s insights into the "paranoid style in American politics” lauded in the NYT
- NYT History Book Reviews: Who Got Noticed this Week?
- Researchers have discovered a previously unknown 149-page manuscript defending homosexuality.
- What Counts as Historical Evidence? The Fracas over John Stauffer’s Black Confederates