It's been a full year since Rolling Stone, the 40-year-old rock 'n' roll journal, published a major critique of President George W. Bush. The Bush cover story asked this bracing question: "The Worst President in History?"
The author of the piece, Sean Wilentz, was no small-time hack, but a Princeton professor and leading American historian. Nor was his assessment a simple-minded hatchet job, quick to dismiss every bit of good news regarding the president.
Instead, Wilentz sorted through the ups and downs of the Bush record as of last May. Unsurprisingly, he found both highs and lows. The highs, Wilentz noted, included some of the highest approval ratings ever recorded. The lows, however, were also stunning. "The ranks of the true believers [in Bush's presidency] have thinned dramatically," Wilentz wrote.
Bush's popularity has declined more significantly than any other two-term president, Wilentz found. Why? There are simple answers—such as the war—but Wilentz looks at Bush's leadership problem. When faced with war and national hardships, previous presidents have "rallied the nation, governed brilliantly and left the republic more secure…," Wilentz wrote.
But Bush, he noted, has displayed a weakness common to failed presidents, namely "an unswerving adherence to a simplistic ideology that abjures deviation from dogma as heresy, thus preventing any preventing any pragmatic adjustment to changing realities." In plain English, Bush knows only one thing and he keeps doing that one thing over and over again, even when the evidence keeps telling him he is failing.
Since Wilentz made that assessment last year, Bush's "unswerving adherence to a simplistic ideology" has continued in Iraq, vindicating Wilentz. Bush remains unswerving. Meanwhile, too many of our soldiers (and many, many Iraqi soldiers and civilians) die almost every day in a war that never had to be fought in a nation that did not attack us in 2001. Moreover, the world is not safer than it was before the Iraq invasion, but more dangerous. Even among our friends and allies, America's prestige has fallen to historic lows.
At the conclusion of his Rolling Stone article, Wilentz quotes Abraham Lincoln to good effect: "Fellow citizens," Lincoln said, "we cannot escape history." It's a lesson George Bush learned too late, if at all.
Wilentz story appeared in Rolling Stone on May 4, 2006.