Welcome to the Bush Library Party!

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 Gonzáles, 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


One Response to Welcome to the Bush Library Party!

  1. Ed Countryman says:

    I’m one of Ben Johnson’s colleagues in the SMU history department. I have the luxury of working mostly in the eighteenth century on non-Texas topics, so as much as is possible for a historian I can stand back from the question of the scholarly benefit of having the Bush Library at SMU. Ben’s comments are in the spirit of the points made to the SMU Faculty by President Turner, and to the whole SMU community by two chairs of departments that have a direct interest in the matter, history and political science., Jim Hopkins and Denniss Ippolito. Like them, Ben has been thoughtful and well-informed.

    The strongest argument for having this library or any presidendtial library on a university campus is that it will hold a major repository of huge public interest. That point holds for any presidency. But the point holds whether the library is university-affiliated or not, as both the Reagan and Clinton libraries show. Eventually the passions will fade, and scholarship in a less-interested sense will take over, and the records in the library will be invaluable.

    The only problem at stake for the SMU community is whether having this library will be beneficial or detrimental to SMU. Jim and Dennis are absolutely right to stress the point that the stance of an individual toward this administration and its policies ought not to bear on having the library, not least because the university is a commons in which outside political advocacy does not have a place. Free speech on campus for all political perspectives is imperative. To my mind, at least, using my classroom position and power for advocacy is another although, as a historian of America, my positions as a citizen inevitably impinge. Nor do I think that the University as an institution should take public political stances. I’ve taught many students whose own stances differ from mine and I hope they will agree that I’ve never used my my temporary classroom power to proselytize or silence them.

    President Turner very ably defined the position that the University is taking. The Library and Museum will be under NARA and therefore subject to Federal law and policy, not to any political dictates. The same rules will hold that hold at the LBJ, Bush 41, Carter, Ford, and Clinton Libraries. The Bush Institute will be institutionally separate, from the Library and the University and its fellows will not have academic standing unless the appropriate academic procedures are followed.

    Two issues emerge. One is familiar by now: the Institute. The president has cited the example of the Hoover Institution at Stanford. That institution does have a stance, congruent with the president whom it commemorates, but it reports to the university. At the Faculty Meeting I asked the president to comment on the relationship between the Carter Center and Emory, given that the Carter Center apparently does not report to Emory. I was told afterwards that the Carter Center is explicitly non-partisan, and that does not seem to be the case with the proposed Bush Institute. On the contrary, it seems likely to be a think tank on the model of the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, the Brookings Institution, or Dallas’s own National Center for Policy Analysis. If so, it will be the first such institution specifically associated with a university. To my mind, at least, it will be of the utmost importance for the sake of academic integrity to keep the Institute as distinctive and separate from the university as possible.

    Consider just the matter of designation. Will the Institute’s letterhead read “The Bush Institute for Democracy at Southern Methodist University?” If so, there will be an implicit university endorsement of every position the Institute takes. I can see an instant counter response: the New York Times and the New York Review regularly publish open letters signed by academics who name their institutions, noting that their doing so is for identification only. My own practice when signing such a letter is simply to add “Dallas, Texas.” But it’s certainly the case that I’ve identified myself institutionally in position-taking op-eds. Nobody would or should assume that SMU endorses any positions I take personally, but perhaps the institution-to-institution link is another matter.

    On this count, I would like to see more discussion of the relationship among the Carter Library, the Carter Center, and Emory. Perhaps more knowledge of that situation will help address some of the comments that I raise below.

    Ben’s comments reach beyond the matter of the Institute in two important ways, however. First, he raises the question of academic and public benefit from the Library, by noting the ability of an outgoing administration to impose severe limits on subsequent use of its archive materials, which subsequent administrations cannot lift. Offhand, it strikes me that such a directive might be open to a court challenge, but that’s a matter for lawyers. The point does speak to what i regard as one of the strongest arguments for having the Library, which is that it will provide the raw material for serious, informed discussion of the administration and its policies. from all perspectives President Turner rightly noted that whatever one’s stance on this administration, it ranks as very important in the history of the presidency, the United States, and the world. But if it is possible for the administration to limit access to the materials that the Library will hold, beyond the legal requirements that would hold with the materials of any presidency, will there be academic or public benefit from having it?

    I don’t ask that question rhetorically, but rather seriously. The president has invited Faculty Senators (of whom I am one) and the Faculty generally to consider these issues as the extraordinary senate meeting next week. I hope that the issue of access to the materials can be discussed by somebody who is genuinely knowledgable about the law of public access, the conduct of presidential librairies elsewhere, or both.

    Another issue that has been on my mind since the plans for the Institute emerged has been the inevitable power that will be exercised by something that is large, very well-funded, and connected politically at the highest levels. Inevitably, should the Library and the Institute come, there will be a long list of former administration people coming to this campus and very probably in residence here. I have no institutional problem with that. If I dissociate myself personally and professionally from somebody, it has been and will be my own business. I did so in the case of former National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy when I was a visiting scholar at NYU. I don’t think that my doing it hurt Mr. Bundy or the Institution. I would expect the same effect from declining an invitation which I never will get to have lunch with Karl Rove. I can see and respect a different stance by somebody within the university who has different interests, and I can see positive benefits for students of political science and public policy.

    My concern on this count is a matter of weight. In the past, SMU has been host to both Presidents Bush, Margaret Thatcher, Colin Powell, and others of their ilk. It also has been host to Jimmy Carter, George McGovern, and others of their sort. it seems to me that a parade of former public figures identified with one position would be detrimental to our institutional well-being, but that being able to attract national and international political figures of the first order might be another. Which effect will the Library and the Institute have?

    Ben also raises the issue of SMU itself becoming a parking place for former high-level figures. There would be nothing new in this. Robert Gates was at A&M, Larry Summers at Harvard, and from what I have understood Gates did the better job by his institution. We have been fortunate that our presidents all have come from academe, and I hope that will continue to be the case. Yet a presidential appointment is in the power of the Trustees, and it is not difficult to see a figure such as Condoleeza Rice being very attrative, should she be willing, particularly given her provostship at Stanford.

    One person I know at Stanford spoke very favorably of dealing with her on a sensitive matter, but the question is not one of personalities. It is one of institutional weight. The prospect of such a person coming to SMU is not small, should we get the Library and the Institute, and the questions that Ben raises about that prospect need to be addressed.

    President Turner spoke seriously on Wednesday. Ben’s setting up this blog is in the spirit of what he invited the faculty to do. I hope other members of the SMU community will continue the discussion in the same serious spirit and that the result will be a productive senate meeting next week.

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