Ross beat me to the punch on this one: surely historians, of all people, should be wary of the presentism that inclines us all to think that that the best and worst of everything is happening NOW. You’d think that historians, of all people, would be disinclined to pronounce too definitively on the merits and demerits of an administration that’s still in power. Isn’t it one of the social functions of the historical profession to warn us against over-confident judgments based on a limited perspective? Isn’t the patron saint of historians Zhou Enlai, who, when asked for his assessment of the French Revolution, replied “It’s too early to tell”?
That said, it’s always possible that the best or worst of something is happening now. Many of the people arguing about whether the best TV show ever is The Sopranos or The Wire are woefully ignorant of any cultural product that’s more than twenty years old — but that doesn’t mean that they’re wrong. As it happens, the Davids (Chase and Simon) have been given freedoms and resources for making their shows that creators at any earlier stage in the history of the medium could scarcely have dreamed of. So on those grounds alone there’s reason to think that the best TV ever could be being made now, other things — writing and acting talent especially — being equal.
(If, by contrast, you look at the theater, you’ll see that today’s theatrical producers have far fewer resources — especially human resources — at their command than Shakespeare did. Richard III has fifty-two — fifty-two — speaking parts. A modern playwright who wrote a play with half that many parts would be laughed out of the theater. The freedom that came from knowing that anything he imagined could be staged didn’t make Shakespeare a great genius, but it didn’t hurt him either.)
Given our tendencies to presentism, here are a couple of encouraging moments: When, a few years ago, ESPN chose their top 100 athletes of the 20th century, the choices were widely distributed throughout the century — though the selection of Michael Jordan as Number 1 was dubious, if inevitable. You see the same kind of distribution in the American Film Institute's 100 Best Films.
All this to say: unless our own time exhibits obviously unusual circumstances that promote excellence or ineptitude, shouldn’t we try to be aware of the tendency to presentism and correct for it? To the question of whether Bush is the worst president ever, isn’t the only reasonable answer “It’s too early to tell”? It would be nice if our historians showed the same caution in these matters as our sportswriters and film critics.