The Sacred College of Historians

There are certain questions frequently asked of eminent minds in public that must be avoided lest that eminence reveal himself to be a moron or at least moronic in certain areas of intellectual endeavor. Recently the Washington Post addressed one of these questions to Eric Foner, DeWitt Clinton professor of history at Columbia University. Naif that he is, Foner exuberantly rushed forward to prove my point. The question asked was one variation or another of "rank the present president of the United States on the historians’ scale of ‘great’ to ‘failure.’" Foner, though the author of distinguished historical studies of 19th century America, bemanured his scholarly credentials by ranking George W. Bush as "the worst president in U.S. history." Now I like a good joke, but nowhere in his tortured exposition was there a hint of humor.

Obviously in the area of contemporary history the professor is a moron. We may even extend his moronism to include the ranking of presidents throughout American history. He claims that Andrew Johnson, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan "occupy the bottom rung," because they "were simply not up to the job" of facing a "national crisis." Well, I can agree to that. Then he throws in Calvin Coolidge and Warren G. Harding, because of "the corruption of their years in office," though Coolidge’s administration was not particularly known for corruption. If Foner is still placing the blame for the Depression on Coolidge he might devote some time to reading economics, particularly Milton Friedman’s explication of the Depression, which makes clear that it was a monetary crisis made so by the Fed’s tight money.

Finally, he places Richard Nixon at "the bottom rung" for his "disdain for the Constitution and abuse of presidential power." Nixon’s opening to China and navigation of the tricky waters of the Cold War apparently amount to nullities in Foner’s analysis, as does Nixon’s fairly successful management of a government that is gigantic in comparison to those of the earlier failed presidents.

Onto this junk heap of inferior presidents he now heaves George W. Bush. Note, nowhere at "the bottom rung" does he place Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton. Carter blundered both in foreign policy and in economic policy, leaving office with interest rates at 21.5 percent, inflation at 13.6 percent and unemployment at 7.1 percent. Americans abroad were embarrassed to show their passports, and at least 52 were being held hostage in our Tehran embassy. Clinton got himself impeached by practicing the same abuse of power and ithyphallic compulsiveness that some of us reported he had practiced as a mediocre governor of Arkansas. Clinton’s economy was healthy (save for its bubble), but that was mainly because he followed Republican economic policies. His plan to "grow the economy" via the reduced interest rates that he promised from a balanced budget (balanced mostly through military cuts) failed. Interest rates went up.

Foner adjudges Bush 43 guilty of all the failings of his aforementioned inferior presidents. Then he throws in an invidious comparison of Bush with President James K. Polk, whose Mexican-American War still embarrasses the Columbia University historian. Don’t get him started on our acquisition of Alaska!

How does one respond to such tendentious pish-posh? It would do no good to mention Bush’s vibrant economy with historically low unemployment, steady growth and a stock market at historic highs. Nor would the professor be persuaded that Bush’s tax cuts brought the economy from the mild recession he inherited from Clinton and the attacks of 9/11 that he might also have inherited from Clinton. Foner utterly ignores the Bush administration’s reform of the military that now allows us to project force around the globe and with little of the inter-service redundancy, thanks to retiring Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Bush has successfully pursued a war on terror, reversing Clinton’s procrastination. Iraq has proven to be problematic but only because Bush is pursuing the idealism of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman in attempting to spread democracy. Had he been Machiavellian enough to topple Saddam and hand the country over to its generals or some other circle of power I doubt Foner would applaud.

The present administration has undertaken other admirable endeavors such as Social Security reform. Though now at a standstill, Bush’s efforts surely will fetch the admiration of future historians. Clinton’s neglect of Social Security is already under the historians’ fire. May I direct Foner to James Patterson’s recent volume in the Oxford History of the United States covering the Clinton years? Bush’s inchoate efforts at healthcare reform are also admirable. Yet Foner remains unimpressed. He has, in his eagerness to answer a stupid question, revealed himself to be a hopeless partisan. That is why in the area of contemporary history he is a moron.