The Magazine

Providence and the President

George W. Bush's theory of history.

Mar 10, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 25 • By JAMES W. CEASER
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WHAT DO CONSERVATIVES think today about History? As President Bush readies the nation for war, an abstract question like this one seems out of place. And yet, having raised this theme himself in recent speeches, President Bush has been faced both at home and abroad with widespread criticism for his use and abuse of History. Echoing others' arguments, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen has accused the president of claiming to speak for "destiny and providence." European critics charge the president and his conservative supporters with a dangerous triumphalism born of a conviction that huge metaphysical forces are aligned on America's side. America, Bush is said to believe, represents God, History, and God in History.

It has, of course, come to be accepted in modern times that presidents will speak of History, provided only that they mean nothing by it. Whenever presidents wish to elevate the tone of an address, they invoke History. History becomes the omniscient observer, watching over the president's and the nation's shoulder. History--we all know the phrases--is "judging" or "testing" us, it will "record what we do," or, in its sterner moments, "will not forgive us." Used in this way, History has become no more than a figure of speech, the great empty suit of modern rhetoric.

The problem with President Bush, so the charge against him goes, is that he has gone beyond these merely ritual usages. When he speaks about "Providence" and "history," as he did in his State of the Union address, he unfortunately takes his own words seriously. This criticism, if it is one, is worthy of investigation, all the more so because it is conservatives who traditionally have worried about the pretensions of History. Is President Bush really guilty of what his critics accuse him of, or have they failed to read him closely?

I.

IT IS NOT ALL THAT LONG AGO that the Doctrine of History was the core idea of leftist political thought in America. History here was not history in an ordinary sense--what Edward Gibbon once called "little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind"--but something much grander. History, usually with a capital "H," was the account of the march of humankind that supplied the answers to man's most fundamental questions. History, with a beginning, a middle, and a clear future direction, if not an end, had "meaning." It also had an internal source of movement or agency all its own, whose laws man could discern. History was going somewhere, and the political parties and leaders who were able to follow or, better yet, anticipate its direction would be vindicated.

The path of History was upward and onward, toward what was called Progress. Progress made History not only inevitable, but appealing. As Woodrow Wilson explained during his 1912 presidential campaign: "Progress! No word comes more often or more naturally to the lips of modern man, as if the things it stands for were almost synonymous with life itself." At the far end of the leftist spectrum was the Marxist version of Progress, with its assurance of a coming final revolution that would produce, as Marx put it, a "definitive resolution of the antagonism between man and nature, and between man and man." Marx's general view held enormous appeal for many American intellectuals, even if they might dissent on some of the details.

But Americans also developed their own, homegrown version of historical movement. The name said it all: Progressivism. Its most eloquent thinkers were two men who helped launch the New Republic, Herbert Croly and John Dewey. Dewey, perhaps America's most celebrated philosopher, never tired of singing the praises of Progress: "The future rather than the past dominates the imagination. The Golden Age lies ahead of us not behind us." Oddly enough, under this understanding, the focus of the Doctrine of History was not on what had already happened--what we usually think of as history--but instead on what would happen. History was now about the future and took the place of prophecy or divination.