OPEN UNIVERSITY DECEMBER 4, 2006
by David A. Bell
As a historian, I read the discussion in The Washington Post about George Bush's place in the history books with great interest, especially the excellent contribution by OU's David Greenberg. But the argument about our "best" and "worst" presidents also got me thinking about the distinctly limited usefulness of these sorts of exercises, which, at their worst can quickly degenerate into games of trivial pursuit. One reason is that, for the general public and historians alike, "greatness" correlates so closely with success, which means that in practice, one of the most important requirements is simply good luck. The novelist Harry Turtledove once illustrated this point in a very astute "alternate history" called
How Few Remain, which was premised on the idea that a stroke of pure luck allowed the Confederacy to win the battle of Antietam, and with it, the Civil War. Set in 1881, in an America still divided between North and South, the novel included as one of its characters none other than Abraham Lincoln--still alive, but largely reviled in the North as a failure and a crank; the man who lost the war. In truth, evaluations of presidents as "great" or "terrible" are similar to evaluations of them as managers of the modern economy: In both cases we give them far more credit for influencing events than they deserve, infusing them with our hopes and our anger, and making them the symbolic focus of our desires to imagine the world as a more controllable place than it really is. I don't mean to say that individuals don't matter in history (Hitler? Churchill?). But let's remember the extent to which a person's historical reputations reflects not only his own qualities and actions, but what has been projected onto him, as a result of factors beyond his control. In the case of George Bush, if Iraq proves to be less of a disaster than is now feared--perhaps, ironically, because Bush is succeeded by someone more competent--he may yet escape the "worst" category that so many of us feel he deserves.