Is it too early to start writing biographies of George W. Bush?


David Greenberg, a professor of history and of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University, is the author of “Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image,” among other books. His history of spin in American politics will be published next year.

For a period of several months in 2006 and 2007, many professional historians, caught up like pundits in the arguments du jour, found ourselves debating in all seriousness whether George W. Bush was the worst president ever. Sean Wilentz of Princeton made the case in a cover story for Rolling Stone; The Washington Post’s Outlook section ran a symposium on the topic. I played along — saying no — but my training as a historian compelled me to admit that the whole discussion was woefully premature. As the great colonial historian Gordon Wood recently told New York magazine when asked to assess President Obama’s historical legacy, the very idea of speaking in the present about what “history” will say amounts to a “fool’s errand.”

Today Bush is considerably more popular than he was when he left office. Some 47 percent of Americans surveyed approve of the way he handled his presidency, compared with only 33 percent at the end of his tenure in office. But it’s probably still too soon to render any confident verdicts. And yet, as James Mann maintains in his slender new biography of Bush, the common assumption “that it will take a long time to judge Bush’s actions,” although “valid for a few of the far-reaching measures” of his presidency, doesn’t preclude prudent evaluations of those policies that have already had “measurable consequences.” For those of us who work in the treacherous space of recent history — that realm between current events and the bygone past, whose actors are all long dead — separating political judgments from historical judgments is the greatest challenge we face. 

Mann writes recent history as well as anyone. A longtime reporter for The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, he has in the past decade fashioned a second career writing books like “The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan,” about the end of the Cold War, and “Rise of the Vulcans,” about Bush’s foreign policy team, that weave extensive interviewing and archival research to produce insightful analyses and fresh perspectives on our own times. ...

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