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Some years ago, Stephen F. Knott, who now teaches at the Naval War College, published a fine study entitled Alexander Hamilton and the Persistence of Myth, in which he did for Hamilton what Merrill Peterson did long ago for Jefferson: he traced his posthumous reputation as it changed and changed again and again in response to the evolution of circumstances.
Three years ago, he did something similar with regard to George W. Bush in Rush to Judgment: George W. Bush, the War on Terror, and His Critics. Both books are first-rate, but here I am recommending the latter. For it has one great virtue.
Something happened of profound importance in the course of the Bush administration. Liberalism underwent a change in those years. I saw it in the academy. Suddenly it was virtually required that one display one’s conformity to right-thinking. Prior to the Bush years, it would have been considered rude and almost unprofessional for a scholar speaking on a subject (say, medieval Arab philosophy) completely unrelated to contemporary political issues to go out of his way to display his admiration or seething contempt for a political candidate or officeholder. Suddenly, every liberal in the land thought it appropriate, even necessary, to display partisan preference on any and all occasions. The rules of decorum has changed.
The demonization of Bush by mainstream Democrats, which Knott traces in detail, was unprecedented in recent times, and it marked a shift on the part of liberals that has transformed American politics. This book will remain important because, without in any way descending into histrionics himself, Knott has amassed the evidence for something that, I fear, will be an enduring aspect of liberal politics and American life more generally. Things have gotten really nasty — not only in the academic world but also in places like Silicon Valley — and, unless the 2016 election marks a seismic shift, they are going to get a lot nastier.