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27/04: Ranking Bush

Presidential rankings fluctuate over time. Each generation struggles to understand themselves and find consensus and community by reinterpreting their collective past, which is one of the most vital and noble functions of history. On the downside, our historical figures most often ascend or diminish in our estimation as a result of how we view their actions through the lens of our experience and culture rather than viewing their actions in their own time and place.

If all rankings are slightly deceptive and self indulgent, then attempting to rank contemporary presidents is pure folly. For example, see the Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. poll (circa 1996) that ranked Ronald Reagan in the thirties, which apparently rested on the political views of Schlesinger and his cronies much more than their historical judgment. Although I greatly admire Schlesinger as a scholar, his dismissal of Reagan as a president of note was not only petty but proved silly and embarrassing as well (and he is at it again, read his latest blend of history and politics here).

Other “conservative” polls have come along since then that tried to place Reagan much closer to the top of the list, but part of the problem with rating presidents on whom we voted (for or against) is that we seek to push our objectivity beyond normal human limits. History is best understood and cataloged and interpreted by dispassionate and disinterested practitioners of the art.

Having said all that (and mindful of my hypocrisy), let me indulge in some speculation in terms of ranking President George W. Bush.

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Defining my terms:
A First Level Intellect is aware of the complexities of an idea, event, or problem, knows how to evaluate ideas and evidence, knows the odds against reaching certainty, but is able to reach good conclusions and make an advance, whether that means a plan of action, a new theory, or a historical conclusion; a second-level intellect is aware of the complexities of an idea, event, or problem and discuss them ad infinitum, but cannot reach good conclusions; a third-level intellect reaches conclusions in blithe ignorance of the complexities to be worked through. The contrast between first-level and second-level is not the difference between smart and dumb. Both can be very, very smart. The second-rater, however, can only analyze/ only deconstruct; the first-rater can analyze and construct.

(Someone has written that most Academics, who have the luxury of hedging their thought with maybes and probably's because their conclusions do not require action, often misunderstand and think they are intellectually superior to those in business or engineering or the military whose thought must lead to specific decisions that are implemented, and so do not have the luxury of stopping with on-the-one-hand ... )

We all have trouble separating style and substance. Liberals may be worse at this than conservatives, to paint with a broad brush. Bill Clinton is very verbal, knows how to allude to ideas and issues without really engaging them, does the indecision in public --damn how complex the world is-- thing very well. And liberals hailed him as a genius on par with Jefferson. Liberals mistook glibness, verbal skill, and persona for intellectual acumen. GW Bush is not verbally blessed, not glib, does not have the persona of an intellectual, and does not do the public dithering --damn how complex the world is --thing. So libs assume him to be a dunce--judging his substance simply on his style. GW seems to me, however, to be operating with a first-rate intellect. He has analyzed the terror attacks on America as an act of war, seems aware that there are no perfect choices, but is able to advance to defensible conclusions and actions.

Here's a theory: I'll admit that Billie Boy is bright, but all I have read from him and about him makes me think that he is a second-level intellectual: by my definitions that means that he knows how to knock ideas back and forth like volleyballs, but hasn't the intellectual bones actually to make up his mind on most things. I think part of the reason for Clinton's last-minute decision-making behavior comes from this quality. I am aware that I may be mistaking one of Bill's character flaws for his intellectual prowess--I did not inhale, I did not have [intercourse] with that woman, we cannot take bin Laden from the Sudan--Bill does not seem able to make the final "do it" decision very often. Perhaps at the moment of decision Slick Willie becomes Limp Willie.

Is it possible that Dick Meyer, "the Editorial Director of," has never read Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America?

Read this story and tell me if you share my impression that Mr. Meyer has no idea that "self interest rightly understood" is one of Tocqueville's (the historical one) most famous maxims.