All the Presidents’ Libraries

All the Presidents’ Libraries
Stanley Fish
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.

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5 Responses to All the Presidents’ Libraries

  1. DBK says:

    “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?”

    The term for this is “begging the question”. It is highly amusing how the author dismisses objections with just a wave of his wand. I believe I would be very entertained if the real world operated according to magic wands. Was the last name of that author really “Fish”? I would have thought it was “Potter”.

  2. heber4 says:

    Fish makes good points about libraries and partisan politics, but it totally ignores the question of the Bush Institute, which is the key question for the SMU faculty.

  3. Andrew R. Graybill says:

    It’s worth reading the 46 (and counting) responses to the piece by Fish, the overwhelming majority of which question a) his faulty logic; b) his disingenuousness; or c) his omission of key details (i.e., that the objection of SMU faculty and others similarly concerned involves the partisan institute, and not the library). While NYT readers might be expected to oppose anything that smacks of Bush promotion, many of the blog postings nevertheless raise sound objections to both Fish’s article and the concept of presidential library/museum complexes more generally.

  4. Editor says:

    Thanks for the update, Andy. I would like to read the responses, but don’t have access to NYT Select, and it seems that the blog content is not available via LexisNexis.

  5. Alexis McCrossen says:

    While the two NYT op-ed pieces about Presidential Libraries each address the complex situation brewing in Dallas and at Southern Methodist University over the shaping of Bush’s legacy, the good name of a vital Protestant denomination (Methodism), and the future of a university, Stanley Fish’s essay is rooted in an uninformed assessment of the particular situation at hand. As does Professor Hollifield, Professor Fish overlooks the costs of bringing the Bush Library to SMU, or any University campus: the Bush team’s insistence that the library will come with a partisan think-tank, “The Bush Institute,” reporting solely to the Bush Foundation. (Perhaps we can excuse Fish for failing to do his due diligence, but we cannot excuse Hollifield who knows full well exactly what the price of the Library will be.) SMU’s President R. Gerald Turner has explained that the host University for the Bush Institute will be expected to make joint-faculty appointments and sponsor joint-programs with the Institute. It is unprecedented for a University to host an independent partisan think-tank without any oversight of it at all. (The Hoover Institution, which it is important to add is not attached to a Presidential Library, reports to Stanford University).

    Though the differences between universities and think-tanks are abundant, the most relevant one is that universities hire scholars on the basis of their expertise and academic qualifications; think-tanks, like the Heritage Foundation, hire fellows on the basis of their ideology and political qualifications.

    So here I turn to the heart of the controversy. Bush’s core supporters, many of whom are our Trustees and biggest donors, are attempting to co-opt our University in the effort to vindicate, shore up, and perhaps even revitalize their political commitments. But we have an active faculty who are already involved in a tremendous range of research projects that are important and worthy, though they may not directly address the needs of the current Bush administration and supporters.

    Professor Hollifield’s arguments in favor of the Bush Library being sited at SMU are fairly benign, but Professor Fish’s are naive and somewhat overblown (after all Presidential papers are preserved by the National Records Archives Administration and thus the need for “Presidential Libraries” is somewhat questionable to begin with). The real problem however with each publicity effort is that they overlook the deal that apparently must be made to bring this eventuality to pass: transforming one of the top one hundred Universities in the United States into an adjunct of the Bush Presidency. The stakeholders in SMU , as well all stakeholders in the American system of higher education, ought to resist this deal between monied interests and partisan politicians.

    Alexis McCrossen, Associate Professor of History, SMU & Faculty Senator

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