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Stephen Knott highlights scholarly double standards in assessing the American Presidency



On May 8th, 2017, The Institute of World Politics hosted Stephen F. Knott, Professor of National Security Affairs at the US Naval War College, for a guest lecture titled “Scholarly Double Standards and the American Presidency.” The lecture explored what Dr. Knott described as a “scholarly double standard” when it comes to how the academic community determines so-called presidential greatness, focusing on historians’ and political scientists’ disparate treatment of Democratic versus Republican presidents.

Dr. Knott was introduced by his longtime colleague and friend, IWP Dean Mackubin Owens, who hailed him as “one of [America’s] foremost presidential historians.” Dr. Knott, who received his Ph.D. from Boston College, has previously taught at the United States Air Force Academy and the University of Virginia. He has also authored books on Alexander Hamilton’s controversial image in the American mind and on the use of covert operations by early American presidents, among other topics. The content of this lecture was taken from Dr. Knott’s most recent book, Rush to Judgment: George W. Bush, the War on Terror, and His Critics, which was published in March 2012.

In his presentation, Dr. Knott argued: “One can see in the contrast between the treatment meted out to Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama…a confirmation that two sets of rules prevail when it comes to scholarly assessments of American presidents. Democratic presidents tend to be excused when it comes to assertive uses of national security policy, while Republican presidents are deemed lawless.” The academic community has not always harbored this bias: in fact, throughout the twentieth century, prominent scholars such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Richard Neustadt, and James MacGregor Burns all championed the active use of presidential powers over national security. It was Richard Nixon’s election in 1968 that caused the academic community to abandon its endorsement of an activist presidency. The former champions of “presidential government,” who had attacked critics of Truman’s undeclared war in Korea, now criticized Nixon for invading Cambodia without Congressional authorization.

In his presentation, Dr. Knott drew upon the works of Schlesinger, Neustadt, and other preeminent historians to highlight the dramatic transformation in scholarly attitudes towards the use of executive power over the course of the Nixon presidency and beyond. Nixon, who became synonymous with abuse of power and disregard for the law, was later used as a point of reference by many critics of another Republican president, George W. Bush. Schlesinger wrote that the presidency of George W. Bush presented “the most dramatic, sustained, and radical challenge to the rule of law in American history.” Schlesinger and others condemned Bush not only as one of the worst presidents in history, but as a threat of existential proportions to American values and the Constitution.

The demonization of George W. Bush continued, Dr. Knott claimed, throughout his tenure and continues into the present day. Parallels were drawn by respected academics between the Bush presidency and the dictatorships of Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il, and the Bush administration’s security practices were compared to those of Joseph McCarthy and various war criminals. “The visceral animus that many American scholars felt towards the Bush-Cheney ‘regime’ bordered on the unprofessional, and made a mockery of the principle of academic objectivity,” Dr. Knott stated. The 2016 biography of Bush written by acclaimed biographer Jean Edward Smith is “tainted by hyperbolic and, at times, sophomoric” criticism; Dr. Knott, who reviewed the book, addressed and corrected many of the oversights and misrepresentations of Bush of which Smith is guilty.

Dr. Knott concluded his lecture by noting that “despite the record of progressive presidents pushing their national security powers to the extreme, it is George W. Bush who is seen as an unprecedented threat to the Constitutional order – a budding tyrant – while Barack Obama…is rarely described by scholars in the same terms. Until academics assess presidential power on principles 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 camp.” Placing a blind trust in Democratic presidents while demonizing their Republican counterparts facilitates the rise of “alternative facts” and discredits historical and political experts as sources of accurate and insightful political analysis – and that, Dr. Knott stated, is of concern for the well-being of the nation.

Dr. Knott’s 259-page book on this subject, Rush to Judgment: George W. Bush, the War on Terror, and His Critics, was published by the University Press of Kansas in 2012.