On great occasions,” the president wrote, “every good officer must be ready to risk himself in going beyond the strict line of the law.” In fact he would later say, during a national security crisis, that “a scrupulous adherence to written law would be to lose the law itself” and would “absurdly sacrific[e] the end to the means.”
Was this George W. Bush? Universally lampooned by the intelligentsia as the worst president in U. S. history, lambasted for shredding the Constitution, and derided for vastly expanding executive power? No, those were the words of Thomas Jefferson—Founding Father and exemplar of deference to the democratic will of the people.
In this dense, tightly argued, and amply annotated volume, Stephen F. Knott invokes Jefferson and other great presidents to contextualize the decisions and performance of our most recent commander in chief, not necessarily to praise Bush, but, in the first wave of revisionist assessments of his performance, to rebut the most outrageous assaults leveled against a man who “has been unfairly treated by those who shape history.” A professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College, Knott provides a fair and complete opportunity for Bush’s many critics to establish the bases of their gripes—then systematically dismantles them, one by one.
While mentioning the pundits, celebrities, and novelists who simply didn’t know any better, Knott trains his sights on the academic community, who did. Many presidential scholars “abandoned any pretense of objectivity” and “engag[ed] in a form of professorial malpractice” by exploiting their scholarly credentials in the service of shortsighted, narrow-minded, partisan attacks on Bush. Knott singles out Princeton’s Sean Wilentz for special treatment, deploring that historian’s ahistorical Rolling Stone cover story entitled “The Worst President in History?” which depicted Bush in a dunce cap.
In fact, as Knott methodically demonstrates, Bush’s wartime conduct was fully consonant with that of his predecessors most celebrated by progressive historians, including Founders like Jefferson, populist Democrats like Andrew Jackson, and modern Democrats like Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and John Kennedy. Knott traces the difficulties underlying the Bush administration’s prosecution of the war on terror to congressional reforms in the aftermath of the Vietnam war and Watergate, as well as seismic events that led defenders of a robust executive (Richard Neustadt, for example) to recalibrate their views. These reforms did more harm than good, in Knott’s telling, as “congressional oversight is a major contributor to the ineffectiveness of America’s intelligence community.” Knott also helpfully reframes the old skirmishes over 9/11 preparedness, the Iraq war, the Valerie Plame affair, FISA, the Terrorist Surveillance Program, and enhanced interrogation techniques as larger battles over the fundamental nature of the president’s constitutional power as commander in chief, forthrightly acknowledging his own systematic “bias in favor of the presidency.”
While Knott observes that the Obama administration has continued (and in some ways expanded) many of the Bush-era practices Obama so vigorously criticized on the campaign trail (i. e., rendition, denying habeas rights to detainees at Bagram, extending the Patriot Act, targeting American citizens for assassination, broadening the “state secrets” doctrine, escalating drone attacks), those practices haven’t occasioned anything like the outcry that attended Bush. Worse, despite certain successes, Obama “seems philosophically supportive of a legalistic and deferential approach to the War on Terror,” marred by near-misses and destined for a perilous and unprecedented “war by lawyer” regime.
While administration insiders such as John Yoo and Jack Goldsmith—to say nothing of Bush, Dick Cheney, and Condoleezza Rice themselves—have already offered spirited, persuasive defenses of the Bush national security policies, Knott’s is among the first efforts by an outsider—and an academic to boot. He explores a wide range of sources, traversing right and left, and spanning everything from blog posts to Congressional Research Service reports to academic studies, all in an effort to establish that “the use of history as ideology, as a partisan tool, also means the corruption of history as history.”
Rush to Judgment does suffer from certain imperfections, such as an unchronological structure that assesses critiques of the response to 9/11 before reviewing the event itself. In addition, while it is difficult to defend Bush’s legacy without critiquing the critiquers, Knott tends to complain more than he should about the double standards they so regularly employ. On balance, however, this is a compelling, thorough defense not only of the 43rd president, but of the presidency itself as a historic institution.
Michael M. Rosen is an attorney in San Diego.