Scholarly Double Standards and the American Presidency

March 9, 2017

The contrast between the treatment meted out to Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama confirms that two set of rules prevail when it comes to scholarly assessments of American presidents. Democratic presidents are excused when it comes to assertive national security policies, while Republican presidents are deemed “lawless.” Obama is the most recent beneficiary of this double standard that distorts scholarly assessments of the nation’s chief executives.

This double standard characterizes the scholarship of many proponents of an activist presidency, such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Princeton’s University Professor Sean Wilentz, a Schlesinger protégé who edits the Times Books series on the American presidency. Other prominent “presidential historians,” including Douglas Brinkley and Robert Dallek, celebrate assertive executive power when exercised by a Franklin Roosevelt or a John F. Kennedy, and now Obama, but recoil at the exercise of this power by Republican presidents.

Throughout much of the 20th century, Schlesinger and colleagues such as Richard Neustadt and James MacGregor Burns championed broad presidential powers over national security. However, progressive scholars began a wholesale retreat from their endorsement of an activist presidency during Richard Nixon’s “imperial presidency,” although some cracks had begun to appear late in Lyndon Johnson’s presidency due to the Vietnam War. In the ensuing decades, progressive revulsion at robust executive powers was applied only to Republican presidents and suppressed during Democratic presidencies.

While George W. Bush’s presidency is seen by his critics as an exercise in lawlessness, many of the same voices celebrate the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, who created a kangaroo military court which tried and executed an American citizen and then deported his family. Roosevelt’s national security policies are seldom portrayed in an unflattering light. The exception, of course, is his internment of Japanese-Americans, which stands in stark contrast to Bush’s approach to the Islamic-American community in the months after 9/11 and has generated considerable scholarly condemnation in recent decades. During the celebrated presidency of Harry S. Truman, the founder of the American national security state, former Nazis who excelled at torture were recruited by the United States in droves. Some of Truman’s defenders claim that the president was kept in the dark regarding this recruitment effort, but as with Ronald Reagan and Iran-Contra, Truman was guilty of negligence if he did not know. After all, didn’t the buck stop at his desk? John F. Kennedy’s administration ran, as Lyndon Johnson put it, a “damned Murder, Inc.,” in the Caribbean and wiretapped Dr. Martin Luther King. Decades later, Obama pushed his national security powers to the limit as well, constructing a global assassination program on an industrial scale and even targeting American citizens with Hellfire missiles while prosecuting leakers with a vengeance. Three of these presidents – Kennedy, Truman, and Franklin Roosevelt – were ranked in the “top ten” of the most recent poll of scholarly assessments of American presidents, while Barack Obama, barely out of office, ranked #12.

Three of Kennedy’s most persistent admirers – Robert Dallek, Arthur Schlesinger, and Sean Wilentz – believed that Bush was a clear and present danger to the Constitution and to the rule of law. If water boarding captured Al Qaeda terrorists represented a threat to the rule of law, where does plotting assassination (Kennedy) or targeting an American citizen in a drone strike (Obama) stand in the pecking order of presidential lawlessness? For many scholars, the definition of an imperial presidency seems remarkably fungible.

The claim that. Bush’s actions represented a novel threat to the constitutional order was widely circulated by those who should know better. There were ample precedents for Bush’s actions, many of them undertaken by predecessors who adorn Mount Rushmore or routinely show up in the top ten lists of presidential “greatness.” Some of the nation’s most prominent public intellectuals, from its most prestigious schools presented brazenly biased accounts of Bush’s presidency. Yet these same voices were mostly silent as Obama exercised war-making powers vigorously.

Many of the allegations levelled against the Bush presidency strained credulity. In 2005, Arthur Schlesinger claimed that Bush presented “the most dramatic, sustained and radical challenge to the rule of law in American history” and that his administration was engaged in a “purposeful drive toward domination of the world.” To make matters worse, Schlesinger considered the Bush administration to be motivated by a sense of superiority “over lesser breeds” of mankind.

Princeton’s Sean Wilentz claimed that history would hold Bush in “greatest contempt for expanding the powers of the presidency beyond the limits laid down by the U.S. Constitution.” Wilentz compared Bush’s actions unfavorably to some of his predecessors, including Abraham Lincoln, who, “did not operate in secret, as Bush has,” which was false. Historian Douglas Brinkley, the author of a fawning 2004 election year biography of Sen. John Kerry, observed; :

Bush was a good man so infuriated and angered by 9/11 that he put on his ideological blinders and forgot that we have other things we represent – civil liberties here at home, a Constitution.

Brinkley also claimed that Bush believed “in bullying over the power of persuasion” and purposely “brutalize[d] his opponents.” Historian Robert Dallek was so disturbed by the lawless presidency of George W. Bush that he proposed a constitutional amendment that would permit the recall of a sitting president.

Columbia historian Eric Foner claimed that Bush had “taken his disdain for law even further [than Richard Nixon]” and that he “sought to strip people accused of crimes of rights that date as far back as the Magna Carta.” Pulitzer Prize winner Garry Wills’ assessment of the Bush years was positively apocalyptic. He declared Bush’s re-election in November 2004, was “the day the enlightenment went out.” Another Pulitzer winner, Stanford History Professor Jack Rakove, claimed that Bush’s use of signing statements meant that the United States “face[d] a constitutional crisis” and if this practice was not halted “our freedoms will become a thing of the past, impossible to recover.”

Far too many prominent members of the law school professoriate also apply a double standard to Republican presidents. While serving as the dean of the Harvard Law School, Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan declared that Republican efforts to strip the courts of jurisdiction in cases involving captured terrorists held at Guantanamo Bay were comparable to the actions of “dictatorships” and “fundamentally lawless.” Kagan’s Yale Law School counterpart, Dean Harold Koh, wrote that the Bush administration’s disregard for international law had it earned it a place in the “axis of disobedience,” alongside North Korea and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Koh claimed that the “Bush-Cheney Administration” engaged in a “systematic effort at constitutional revolution” 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.” Koh would later defend Obama’s use of drone strikes against American citizens.

Koh, along with Harvard professors David Barron and Martin Lederman, condemned aspects of Bush’s “imperial” and “lawless presidency” and then provided legal cover for, as Danny Sjursen’s has called it, Obama’s “sustained campaign of extrajudicial killings of terrorists” and his limitless theater of military operations. Sjursen rightly added, “Obama’s hawkish behavior surpassed even that of George W. Bush.” Not so in the minds of Barron, Lederman, and Koh, and a host of other law professors.

Despite this record of progressive presidents pushing their national security powers to the extreme, it is George W. Bush who is seen as something of an unprecedented threat to the constitutional order, a budding tyrant, while Barack Obama, premature winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, is rarely described by scholars in these same terms. Until academics assess presidential power on principled rather than ideological grounds – in other words adopt a consistent posture regarding presidential power regardless of whether a (D) or an (R) follows the president’s name – a substantial portion of the American public will dismiss scholarly assessments as partisan cant. Too many scholars, not to mention journalists, place their devotion to the Constitution in a blind trust when judging a Democrat in the White House. These partisan scholars undermined the credibility of the academy and facilitated the rise of those who propagate “alternative facts.” Regrettably, the record of blatant scholarly bias toward Republican presidents allows the Trump administration to claim, with some justification, that you cannot believe the accounts proffered by scholars, or by any “so-called experts.” That is truly cause for concern for the health and well-being of the American republic.


Stephen F. Knott is a Professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College. Prior to joining the Naval War College faculty, Knott was Co-Chair of the Presidential Oral History Program at the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. He is the author of Rush to Judgment: George W. Bush, the War on Terror, and His Critics (Kansas, 2012). His views are his own and do not represent those of the U.S. government.

Image: Barack Obama Presidential Library