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Wilentz the Buff: Rolling Stone on Dubya

By Jay Cost

Rolling Stone has a splashy cover story that asks if George W. Bush is the worst president in American history.

Smart rock fans, of course, ignore Rolling Stone. A rock magazine that once wrote that Exile on Main Street shows the Stones "at their most dense and impenetrable" and taking "a minimum of chances"; and that once characterized Who's Next as "dangerously close to sterile," is a magazine that is not to be taken seriously on the good, the right, or the true of rock music, let alone politics. When they opine about the latter, I usually laugh and move on.

This time, however, I paused. The author of this provocative piece, Sean Wilentz, is a serious historian. A first rate one, too. Anybody who has read his seminal Chants Democratic can attest to this. I was thus chagrined to find that Wilentz had not elevated the pages of Rolling Stone above its typical pretentious dilettantism, but rather that the latter had brought the former to its level.

Aside from the fact that it is sandwiched, in the online version, between profiles of Fiona Apple and Nick Lachey, the initial sense of the piece is that it is serious and worthwhile. Wilentz has an incredibly tendentious reporting of the facts; nevertheless, the article reads as if it is the product of the careful consideration of a renowned scholar bringing the tools of his trade to bear, not the idle pastime of a historian with nothing else to do. The former seems to be Wilentz's intent; time and again, he takes pains to dress the inquiry in the garb of the academy. However, he gives us reason to doubt whether we should accept it as that. As a prelude to his disquisition about how careful historians are when they think about ranking presidents, Wilentz writes this puzzling sentence:

From time to time, after hours, I kick back with my colleagues at Princeton to argue idly about which president really was the worst of them all.
So, which is it? Is it serious work by a historian using his professional expertise to answer a burning question? Or, is it just the compilation of the "idle" thoughts of a historian off the clock?

To answer these questions, we must ask another: what is it that separates the historian from the history lover, the political scientist from the politically attentive, the scholar from the buff? It is not the title of "professor," it is not the number of books from prestigious publishers, it is not the doctoral degree hanging on the wall. It is only this: the scholar uses a method of inquiry that the buff does not, and he operates in a community where adherence to that method is (or at least should be) of paramount importance. This, and this alone, is what should endow the social scientist, as opposed to the buff, with the status of "expert." The social scientist has spent time thinking not just about the question at hand, but also how to think about the question at hand.

This is why I was so aggrieved to read Wilentz's piece. He is a great historian who should know better than to devolve into the idle speculations of the history buff - but that is exactly what he does.

This becomes evident with a careful reading of his eighth paragraph. Wilentz gives three criteria for differentiating the good president from the bad. These are: (1) did they divide or unite the nation? (2) did they govern erratically or "brilliantly"? (3) did they leave the nation more or less secure? I shall take these as they are given - but I will say that I have serious objections to all three (particularly the second, which seems to present a false dichotomy and, with "brilliant," uses a word so hackneyed that it is almost bereft of meaning).

Wilentz's problem is that he leaves these principles hopelessly vague. He has accomplished the first step of developing a theory of presidential greatness. He has given us the basic theoretical principles. However, this is not enough. Wilentz must explain how we are to measure these principles in the world. In other words, he has to describe and defend the empirical indicators of unity/division, erratic/"brilliant", better off/worse off. How is it that we measure the unity/division of the nation across time? What types of actions can we expect an erratic president to take that a brilliant president would avoid? What do we mean when we say that the nation is more secure? Are we talking about dollars, are we talking about defense, or are we talking moral character? These are the sorts of questions that Wilentz should answer before a search through history for evidence. He answers none of them.

The proper way to conduct any inquiry is to (1) develop a hypothesis, (2) deduce from the hypothesis the phenomena we should discover if it is true, (3) explain how we can measure those phenomena, and (4) take the measurements. Wilentz's hypothesis is that Bush is the worst president ever. He has deduced that excellence/awfulness will manifest itself through national unification, managerial skill, and national well-being. But he has no measurement of these qualities. He never sets up, let alone justifies, what we should see when we are looking at a unified nation, a brilliant manager, a nation better off. Thus, how do we know that the Bush presidency represents the nadir of these qualities? We do not even know how these qualities operate in the world.

In other words, Wilentz has failed to operationalize his theory. This is what we do when we say, "The economy is doing well. Look at the rate of growth." The rate of growth is an operationalization of the economy's well being. Failing to operationalize is a critical mistake. Without it, you cannot connect your evidence to your theory. If you do not have a clear idea of how your theory specifically operates in the world, you do not know what to look for in the data. If you do not know what to look for in the data, you can always bring forth evidence that seems to support your point, but you have no way to judge whether it counts as real evidence. After all, you have not identified what your theory predicts and what it does not. Thus, you cannot judge if you are right or wrong. And if there is no way to judge whether you are right or wrong, there is no difference between your answer and the answer to a Rorschach test. You necessarily find that for which you searched, but the audience only learns something about you.

In Wilentz's case, he has all of this data about Bush, but he never sets up what we should expect to find in the data if Bush is indeed the worst president. Thus, the fact that Wilentz has concluded that Bush is the worst really only indicates that Wilentz does not like him. His data is little more than an exhaustive, unconnected laundry list of grievances.

This is how a know-it-all buff argues about history. He rallies fact after fact, but he never does the theoretical work to indicate how and why the facts he references actually matter. Wilentz's article, then, is not what it seems. It appears to be the discourse of a great academic, but it is in effect the polemical assertions of an anti-Bush history buff. As it happens, his aside about late night chitchats is the key sentence in the 5,000+ word essay. Wilentz has wrapped the piece in the dress of the academy - the use of the first person plural as in "we historians," the talk of the consensus among scholars, the late-night chat sessions in the department's faculty lounge, the provision of historical minutiae - but the article, behind this guise, is completely unscholarly.

Wilentz writes, "Contrary to popular stereotypes, historians are generally a cautious bunch. We assess the past from widely divergent points of view and are deeply concerned about being viewed as fair and accurate by our colleagues." All of this is true, but it raises the following question: Wilentz's colleagues are worth a deep concern about rigor, why are the rest of us not?

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