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.