Stephen Knott: Rush to Judgment

Stephen F. Knott is professor of National Security Affairs at the United States Naval War College and author of Alexander Hamilton and the Persistence of Myth, Secret and Sanctioned: Covert Operations and the American Presidency and At Reagan’s Side: Insiders’ Recollections from Sacramento to the White House. He codirected the presidential oral history program at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs and has also served on the staff of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.

Professor Knott’s new book — Rush To Judgment: George W. Bush, the War on Terror, and His Critics — is officially published today. It is a hard-hitting book that I think will be of interest to Power Line readers.

We invited Professor Knott to write something that would allow us to bring the book to the attention of our readers and give us a preview of its findings. He has kindly responded:

Rush to Judgment challenges the conventional wisdom regarding the presidency of George W. Bush and argues that a revisionist account of the 43rd President, at least regarding his national security policies, is already long overdue. Rush to Judgment defends Bush’s Hamiltonian exercise of executive power, but most importantly it offers a critique of the professoriate for its misuse of scholarship for partisan political purposes.

While presidents have always been the target of heated rhetoric from their political opponents and the media, much of the demagoguery directed toward Bush came from historians, law professors, and political scientists, including those who consider themselves “presidential scholars.” Far too many of these scholars abandoned any pretense of objectivity and seemed unwilling to place Bush’s actions in the War on Terror into historical context.

These scholars helped shape the perception that Bush’s presidency was one of the worst in American history. George W. Bush caused too many of those who celebrate the power of reason to wallow in, as Richard Hofstadter once put it, “the qualities of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy.”

Princeton historian Sean Wilentz led the assault by claiming in a highly publicized essay entitled “The Worst President in History?” that Bush would be held in the “greatest contempt for expanding the powers of the presidency beyond the limits laid down by the U.S. Constitution.”

Wilentz’s Ivy League colleague Eric Foner added that Bush had “taken his disdain for law even further [than Nixon]” and “sought to strip people accused of crimes of rights that date as far back as the Magna Carta.”

Historian Joyce Appleby claimed that “the founders never imagined a Bush administration” and issued a clarion call in 2006 for the public to “wake up to this constitutional crisis.”

Pulitzer Prize winner Joseph Ellis said of Bush in 2009 that he “might very well be the worst president in American history,” while Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., once described by David Broder as “James Carville in a cap and gown,” argued that Bush presented “the most dramatic, sustained and radical challenge to the rule of law in American history.”

A report issued in 2009 by a group known as “Historians Against the War,” featuring history faculty from Columbia, Yale, Trinity College, New York University and Yeshiva University, featured Bush and Cheney seated on a pile of human skulls.

The observations of prominent law professors, including Harold Koh, now the State Department’s legal advisor, were equally hysterical. Koh argued that the Bush administration’s disregard for international law earned it a place in the “axis of disobedience,” along with Kim Jong-Il’s North Korea and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and warned that “if the president has commander-in-chief power to commit torture, he has the power to commit genocide, to sanction slavery, to promote apartheid, to license summary execution.”

Neal Katyal, President Obama’s acting Solicitor General, claimed that Bush’s policies at Guantanamo Bay “rocked[ed] the constitutional order” and that Bush’s claims of “unchecked power” could “lead to massive abuse.”

President Obama’s nominee to head the Office of Legal Counsel, Dawn Johnsen, accused Bush and Cheney of “appalling abuses” of power, and compared the Bush “torture memos” and the nation’s reaction to them by drawing comparisons with the genocide in Rwanda.

Needless to say, all of the aforementioned “scholars” have remained remarkably silent, or in some cases are collaborators with President Obama’s “abuses” of executive power, be it in the skies over Libya, or at Guantanamo Bay, or in placing an American citizen on a “kill list,” to name just a few examples of Obama’s Bush-like approach to national security.

The left-leaning bias of American academics is hardly a new phenomenon, but the presidency of George W. Bush brought out the worst in these activist scholars. In their animus toward Bush, too many professors were guilty of an “assault on reason” – a charge Bush’s critics were quick to assign to the President. Sadly, these were not fringe elements of the academic community, such as Ward Churchill, but academics from the nation’s most prestigious universities.

Professional historians will tell you that first accounts of events are almost always wrong, and that the passage of time and the cooling of passions are essential preconditions for those seeking to explain the past. The assessment of any presidency requires a “decent interval” before judgment can be pronounced, but in the case of George W. Bush, there was a rush to consign him to the ash heap of history. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., once wrote that “the use of history as therapy means the corruption of history as history.” He would have done well to add that the use of history as ideology, as a partisan weapon, also means the corruption of history as history.

You can purchase Professor Knott’s book via this Amazon link.