All the Presidents’ Libraries
New York Times
January 21, 2007
When I arrived at Duke to take up a faculty position in the fall of 1985, I found a campus still polarized to some extent by the 1981 controversy over whether the university should be the site of the Richard Nixon library and museum. Nixon was a 1937 graduate of the law school at Duke, in Durham, N.C., and the offer of his papers was received positively by then president (and lifelong Democrat) Terry Sanford. But a significant number of faculty members opposed the plan, and the heated discussions that followed established a pattern of argument that would reappear whenever a university was proposed as the location of a presidential library.
Some took the position that the university would be enriched by an archive that would attract visitors and researchers from around the world. (This was an important point in 1981, because Duke was not yet the research powerhouse and “hot” school it later came to be.) Others objected that a Nixon library and especially a Nixon museum would associate the university with a disgraced political figure and might even be seen as an implicit endorsement of the former president’s policies and values. The faculty was evenly divided with a slight majority voting in the negative. Trustees voted in the positive, and an effort to broker a compromise – build the library but axe the museum – ultimately failed. The library and museum ended up in Yorba Linda, Calif.
Now, 25 years later, the president in question is George W. Bush and the school at the center of controversy is Southern Methodist University, in Dallas. S.M.U. is apparently the winner of the George W. Bush presidential library sweepstakes, and it’s déjà vu all over again as protesting faculty, students and alumni say things like, “I find it patently offensive for the board [of S.M.U.] to consider such an affront to justice given the Bush record,” and “Do we want S.M.U. to benefit from a legacy of massive violence?” and “Why on earth would you want anything with this man’s name stamped on it?”
A group of Methodist ministers, including some bishops, has set up a Web site that asks members of the church and other concerned citizens to sign a petition indicating their disapproval of the proposed library. Two theology professors associated with the university complained in the student newspaper of “the secrecy of the Bush administration and its virtual refusal to engage with those holding contrary opinions” (could there be a more blatant instance of the pot calling the kettle black?) and asked rhetorically, “What does it mean ethically to say that regardless of an administration’s record and its consequences, it makes no difference when considering a bid for the library?”
What it means is that the question of the ethics of the Bush administration – does it condone torture? does it invade the privacy of American citizens? does it sacrifice the environment to the interests of the oil and gas industry? – is independent of the question, is it a good thing for there to be a public repository of the records of a national administration for the purposes of research and education? Once that question is answered in the affirmative – and any other answer is almost inconceivable – the ethical performance (along with the political, military and economic performance) of the administration becomes a matter of study rather than something you are either affirming or rejecting. Historians do not require that the men and women whose lives and works they chronicle be admirable; the requirement is that they be significant, and that is a requirement every president, of whatever party or reputation, meets by definition.
Apparently continued somewhere here behind the NYT’s pay firewall.