KNOXVILLE, TENN. — After Watergate nearly every American president, it is assumed, has spent the bulk of his time engaged in a conspiracy of one sort or another.
Gerald Ford, it was assumed, arranged in advance to pardon Richard Nixon. Ronald Reagan was obsessed with setting up a secret network of funding for the Contra operation.
The elder George Bush had cynically proclaimed "no new taxes," knowing all the time that new taxes would be necessary to curtail the burgeoning national deficit.
Underneath his genial exterior, Bill Clinton was little more than an immoral opportunist, philandering in the Oval Office while renting out White House bedrooms to the highest bidder.
And now the conspiracy script has been reloaded: George W. Bush, it is assumed, has done nothing more in the past two years than mislead the American people concerning the threat posed by Iraq.
To what extent these accusations are true has become almost irrelevant. Within the conspiracy mode of thinking, the entire work of an administration is boiled down to one event - a central conspiracy. This sort of West Wing mythmaking appeals to the popular imagination, but it utterly distorts the reality of what goes on at the White House.
Determined to discover a conspiracy, we are blinded to the totality of a president's work, so that we come to see Nixon only in terms of Watergate, we think of the first President Bush only in terms of new taxes, we remember Clinton only in terms of his sexual indiscretions.
And now we are in danger of missing the point again. In its totality, the work of Mr. Bush as president has been substantial and positive. To what extent he engaged in spin and exaggeration to justify the war in Iraq, we cannot yet know. It appears that he was seriously misled by the intelligence community, but whatever history's final verdict is, the war in Iraq is only one aspect of his presidency, and it may yet turn out to be one of his major accomplishments.
If we move beyond the conspiracy mode of thinking, we can begin to judge the total contribution of the Bush presidency and see that we are far better off than we were at the end of the Clinton administration.
The president has ably led us through the uncertain days following the worst attack on our country in modern times.
Funding of terror cells has been disrupted; Al Qaeda operations have been crippled.
A brilliant military victory in Afghanistan has eliminated bases for training camps that were turning out fanatical anti-American terrorists, and this victory and the one in Iraq have made the Middle East and the world a safer place on the whole.
The Clinton recession was the product of a fraudulent culture of inflated stock prices and corrupt corporate accounting. The recession is easing, and the economy is turning around. The jobs that John Kerry has complained about for months are beginning to come through in substantial numbers. The largest tax cut in American history has returned the people's money to them.
The conspiracy theory makes good headlines and sells papers, but it doesn't help us to make a fair assessment of a president.
On the whole, Bush has compiled a solid record of facing the dangers that exist both at home and abroad. He has led us through perilous times. His policy decisions have not been flawless, but they have been sound.
Let's forget the conspiracy theory and give the Bush administration credit for the important work it has done.
• Jeffrey Folks is a retired English professor.