Saturday, May 27, 2006

Presidential Approval

Presidential Approval. I have been subscribing to The Week for several months now. It is a weekly magazine which collects news reports and editorials from around the world. It is similar to many sites on the Web except it lacks Google Adsense ads and pop ups and I can read it on paper which I desire very much at times. It also tends to have articles which discuss history.

I found this editorial by Thomas Vinciguerra interesting:

"As if George W. Bush didn’t have enough to worry about. His popularity is at near-historic lows, his base is crumbling, and he still has more than two years in office. Now Sean Wilentz, director of the American Studies program at Princeton, has argued in a Rolling Stone cover essay that poor Dubya may be the worst president since the republic was founded. With all due respect to Professor Wilentz, he may want to reconsider. It’s not a question of Bush’s talents, or lack thereof. Rather, presidential reputation is a tricky business—especially when the subject is still breathing."

"Just consider. When Harry Truman left office, he had the lowest approval rating of any president ever. Yet 10 years ago, a group of historians organized by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. ranked him as 'near great.' In the wake of the Iran-Contra scandal, Ronald Reagan appeared clueless and not in control of his own staff; his approval rating dropped to 46 percent. When he left office, though, he had the highest approval rating of any president since FDR. Conservatives now revere him as one of the great presidents of all time, and even liberals give him grudging respect. Of course, the process cuts both ways. Warren Harding, universally beloved when he lived on Pennsylvania Avenue, is now considered a terrible president. In 1962, Professor Schlesinger’s father and 75 other pundits rated Herbert Hoover as 'average.' Thirty-four years later, the panel led by the junior Schlesinger dubbed him a 'failure.' The once-golden reputation of JFK is now tarnished because of posthumous revelations about his tomcatting and nuclear brinkmanship. So, is George W. Bush our worst chief executive ever? Ask again in about a hundred years."

Bush may or may not be a bad president. Our own personal politics will help us answer that question today. Future historians will likely view him based on his legacy and not his popularity polls. He probably will not recover as high as Lincoln who was highly unpopular in his time and is now consider the best ever. But he might. Or Bush may tank like Harding has as history takes a good hard look at him. Time will tell and it is important to separate personal political views from historical analysis. This is clearly hard for some people to do but I think historians need to make a special effort to try. Who knows who will be quoting your work a century from now and ridiculing you for what to the future historian appears down right silly?

Go ahead and have your own personal views on a current president. Be sure to let your history education guide you. But do not confuse that view with the the eventual judgement of history.

1 comment:

Rodrigo de PiƩrola C. said...

Well, you've summed up the difference between journalism ("let's make fun of the gawky guy") and history ("Lincoln= Great Prez").
As I read in a book, no one actually knows they are making history (though there might be a few exceptions), it's only later that you found out. The author said that the Ottomans did were not thinking during the night they took Constantinople "Gee, tonight's the end of the Middle Ages".
Regarding W., the jury-members' parents haven't been born yet, they're so far out; but of course, admire or criticise him as you please.