Welcome to the Bush Library Party!

January 18, 2007

Five years ago, when I came to Southern Methodist University (SMU), I never thought I’d find myself at ground zero of the first national debate about the legacy of the George W. Bush administration. Now that we’ve been named as the finalist for his presidential library and institute, that’s exactly where I find myself. This blog (https://bushlibraryblog.wordpress.com) will, I hope, offer a view of what this debate looks like from its very center, in the history department of SMU. I hope to change people’s minds by my postings, but most importantly, to provide one forum where people across the nation and at SMU can exchange ideas and find information and arguments to help them make up their own minds. This goal is consistent with my profession, and if I didn’t believe that it would do some good even if my views don’t win out, I’d have no business being a professor. I have enormous respect for this university, and hope that this blog helps showcase some of its strengths. I am a history professor – an untenured assistant professor, to be exact – at SMU. I have a lot at stake in this debate because I’m employed by SMU and hope to be for many decades to come, because I am a professional historian, and because I teach and write about Texas (where I’m from) and often resent the way Texas is portrayed in the national media and scholarship. (For more about my work, see my homepage at http://faculty.smu.edu/bjohnson/) Texas and Dallas are complicated places that have exercised enormous influence over the shape of modern America – yet so often they are portrayed in such flat, mono-dimensional tones, by Texans and outsiders alike. I have a point of view in all of this: I think that the proposed library, museum, and institute (and especially the latter) are bad, bad news for SMU, and raise important and sometimes troubling questions about private money, partisan politics, and universities – not to mention the legacies of the Bush administration.

I’ll close this introductory post by raising what I see as the principal arguments against the library-museum-institute coming to campus.

First, and most importantly, the Bush Library-Museum-Institute will be as much or more a source of continued political propaganda for the Bush administration and its policies as it will be an educational resource.The Institute is explicitly conceived as an advocacy organization, and it will report to the Bush Foundation, not to the University. The museum, as is the case with all presidential museums is mostly funded by private sources, in this case by the same Bush foundation. As extensive experience with the previous eleven presidential libraries indicates, this museum will also present a partisan view defending the Bush administration and advancing its reputation and policies. The library, while it could be an asset to SMU – and remember that I am a historian, and have spent an amazing portion of my adult life happily ensconced in libraries – will also be heavily influenced by the Bush people, though under the control of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). In November of 2001, President Bush issued an executive order requiring NARA to honor any assertion of executive privilege by a former President – even against the wishes of a library director or a sitting president. In other words, years from now, if an aged historian Benjamin Johnson wanted to walk from his office to the Bush Library to look at documents related to, say, domestic spying programs under Attorney General Alberto Gonz√°les, if George W. Bush had invoked executive privilege Professor Johnson wouldn’t be able to, even if Hillary Clinton or Barak Obama were in the oval office. Or even if I were in the White House.

Second, there is the Bush administration’s penchant for secrecy. Bush has reclassified documents going back to the 1960s (prompting a clash with the Archivist of the United States), has conducted controversial if not downright unconstitutional programs without informing Congress or the courts (domestic wiretapping, etc), classified government documents at greater rates than prior administrations, and further restricted the ability of former government officials o write academic, journalistic, and opinion pieces about matters of policy related to their former positions. This is not an auspicious track-record for founding a great library.

Third, as faculty member who is honored to work at SMU, I’m afraid that my small university will be swamped by the Bush people – in effect, that SMU will become part of the Bush Library and Foundation rather than the other way around. Remember that Robert Gates became Texas A & M’s president after serving as the head of its George H.W. Bush school. We’re going to bring an institute to campus backed by major local powers, including the wealthiest and most influential of our board members, with an endowment of up to $500million (according to press accounts), and bearing an incredibly high public profile, one much higher than SMU’s. The Bush people are going to eat us alive. I fully expect Condoleezza Rice or Paul Wolfowitz or Karen Hughes to end up being president of SMU. Being swamped by a partisan institute wouldn’t be acceptable for a university even if the institute represented a popular, unifying presidency whose policies I like. It’s even worse that it’s one of the most divisive, partisan, and unpopular administrations inU.S. history. Although this is not a partisan debate at its core – many of the faculty supporters of the library-museum-institute have always voted against Bush – the truth is that the proposal wouldn’t prompt this level of controversy were it not for this administration’s use of torture, waging of a destructive war under false pretenses, and cheerful complicity in vast environmental destruction. As you sow, so shall you reap.

Fourth, there are serious and under-explored opportunity costs for SMU. Our next capital campaign is supposed to be targeted at the faculty and the curriculum – more endowed chairs, more faculty positions (my department has lost several in the five years I’ve been here), more student scholarships. The hundreds of millions of dollars that will go to the library-museum-institute will derail our other goals. Presidential libraries, for all of their scholarly value, don’t make universities better at the core missions of teaching and research. That’s why more prestigious, higher-profile places like Duke, Stanford, and Harvard, have turned them down. SMU is a good university that could become an excellent one, but not without deeper investments in it faculty and teaching.

May the debate continue, and may its depth, insight, and passion be a rebuttal to all enemies of democracy – both foreign and domestic – and a reminder of why we have universities.

Ben Johnson


Methodists: No Bush Library at SMU

January 18, 2007

Methodists: No Bush Library at SMU
Angela K. Brown
Associated Press
January 18, 2007

A group of Methodist ministers from across the nation launched an online petition drive Thursday urging Southern Methodist University to stop trying to land George W. Bush’s presidential library.

The petition, on a new Web site, http://www.protectsmu.org, says that “as United Methodists, we believe that the linking of his presidency with a university bearing the Methodist name is utterly inappropriate.”

“Methodists have a long history of social conscience, so questions about the conduct of this president are very concerning,” said one of the petition’s organizers, the Rev. Andrew J. Weaver of New York, who graduated from SMU’s Perkins School of Theology.

Read the rest here.

The Bush think tank: A giant Trojan horse among the Ponies?

January 18, 2007

The Bush think tank: A giant Trojan horse among the Ponies?
Andrew Weaver and George Crawford
SMU Daily Campus

A large number of faculty, loyal alumni and United Methodist Church members are deeply concerned about the proposed package that includes the Bush Library and think tank at SMU. According to President Gerald Turner’s Jan. 5 letter, the operation of the think tank will not be accountable to SMU or the United Methodist Church that owns the University. It will report to the Bush Foundation.

There needs to be an open debate about the project, both on the campus and among the 11 million members of The United Methodist Church. SMU is the only university among the 123 educational institutions that are related to the UMC that has the Methodist name in it. What the university chooses to do will reflect on the church that founded the university.

According to the New York Daily News, “President Bush and his truest believers are about to launch their final campaign-an eye-popping, half-billion-dollar drive for the Bush presidential library” (1-2). Bush loyalists have already identified wealthy heirs, Arab nations and captains of industry as potential “mega” donors who can give $10 to $20 million each, and they are pressing for a formal site announcement expected early this year (1-2).

The President’s allies believe they need enormous funds to shape how history views Bush’s legacy. A Bush insider said, “The more [money] you have, the more influence [on history] you can exert.” Much of the funding will be used to build a “legacy-polishing” think tank, which several Bush insiders have called the Institute for Democracy. Bush’s institute will hire neo-conservative scholars and “give them money to write papers and books favorable to the President’s policies” (1-2).

Former senior vice president at the Heritage Foundation Burton Yale Pines has called think tanks like the one proposed at SMU “the shock troops of the conservative revolution” (3). Think tanks are like universities minus the systems of peer review and other mechanisms that academia uses to promote diversity of thought and honest intellectual debate. Ethical academics are expected to conduct their research first and draw their conclusions second, but this process is often reversed at free-standing think tanks. In general, research from think tanks is ideologically driven in accordance with the interests of its wealthy benefactors, in this case “mega” donor Bush loyalists.

Individual political views shouldn’t influence Library

January 18, 2007

Individual political views shouldn’t influence Library
Brandon Brown
SMU Daily Campus

In recent weeks, there has been a great deal of discussion among SMU faculty members about the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Institute.

We believe that local and national media coverage of this discussion has frequently exaggerated the extent and intensity of faculty opposition to the Library.

In the case of the New York Times, remarks at a closed faculty meeting were quoted without appropriate context (or permission). As a result, important misunderstandings may have arisen about individual or collective faculty views.

As the chairs of two departments that will be vitally engaged in the scholarship to emerge from the Bush Library, we wish to make our views quite clear.

There are three elements to the proposal currently being discussed. First, and most important, is the George W. Bush Presidential Library, which would be administered by the National Archives and Records Administration in accordance with federal statutes, regulations and legal agreements. It is their responsibility to make documentary materials accessible to scholars and journalists fairly, impartially and as quickly as is practicable.

The second is an associated museum that memorializes presidents through public programs and exhibits.

The third is the Bush Institute that would exist independently from the University and report to the Bush Foundation. This Institute would presumably have resident and visiting research fellows to conduct its public policy research programs.

Some faculty voices have been raised in opposition to the Library on the grounds that the Bush administration has pursued policies at home and abroad with which they disagree. Whether one is a supporter or opponent of President Bush, we believe that individual political views should not be linked to the Bush Library.

Read the rest of the article here.

Turner addresses library concerns

January 18, 2007

Turner addresses library concerns
SMU Daily Campus
A. Neely Eisenstein
Issue date: 1/18/07

President R. Gerald Turner said he does not and will not have an answer to the political differences between faculty members regarding the George W. Bush Presidential Library during Tuesday’s spring general faculty meeting.

Turner said only time will tell which position is correct, and noted that those answers will hopefully emerge from resources at the library.

Tuesday’s meeting was another in a series of events after the Dec. 21 announcement that SMU was entering into exclusive negotiations for the library. The part of the library that has caused the most concern amongst some faculty members is the proposed Bush Institute.

Turner said the library is a rare opportunity with immeasurable academic resources and SMU would be providing a service to the community and its country.

President of Faculty Senate Rhonda Blair spoke about how important it is to “let the dialogue continue.” Blair said the question is not should the library come to SMU, but how.

“Like the making of America, this will no doubt be a decades-long process,” said Blair.

Turner addressed each of the six categories of questions compiled by Blair during last week’s faculty meeting. In his reply Turner said it would be better for the Bush Institute, the proposed conservative political think tank, to be independent from the university. He said such a move would allow SMU to maintain its individual values.

The idea is for the university and the library to “coexist in structural independence, but mutually thrive,” said Turner.

Read the rest of the article here:

SMU president defends plan to host Bush library

January 18, 2007

Jan. 17, 2007, 11:04PM

SMU president defends plan to host Bush library 

Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle Dallas Bureau

DALLAS – Responding to protests from some faculty members about the prospect of hosting President Bush’s library, Southern Methodist University’s president said Wednesday that political passions will give way to historical research.

“Over time, the political component of the library center will fade and the historic importance of the issues will ascend,” SMU President Gerald Turner told faculty members at a meeting opening the spring term.

He called the library “a significant opportunity for us to attract to SMU and Dallas one of the most important troves of information of one of the most critical decades in the history of our country.”


The faculty members’ chief complaint has been that a think tank that will come along with the library will be sharply conservative and undercut the school’s nonpartisan traditions. There is also strong political opposition to the president’s policies among those leading the faculty protest.

Last week, 68 current and former faculty members sent Turner a letter saying that Americans give the president “poor marks” on issues such as the war in Iraq. The letter took issue with the administration over “erosion of habeas corpus, denial of global warming, disrespect for international treaties, alienation of longtime U.S. allies, environmental predation, disregard for rights of gay persons, a preemptive war based on false premises and other forms of disrespect for the created order and global community.”

William McElvaney, a professor emeritus at SMU’s theology school and co-author of a November opinion piece in the campus newspaper titled “The George W. Bush Library: Asset or Albatross?”, said his opposition is ethical rather than partisan.

“Much of the record of the Bush administration contradicts what I think of as Methodist ethics,” he said. “This isn’t partisan on my part.”

McElvaney said he and other faculty members are particularly concerned about locating a Bush public policy institute on campus.

“I do mind the prospect of a Karl Rove or Donald Rumsfeld or a Paul Wolfowitz or others of that philosophy using SMU as a bully pulpit for the Bush legacy. That is not in the best interest of SMU,” he said.

Read the rest of the article here