Will Karl Rove be the First Head of the Bush Institute? Questions about the Bush Complex, Faculty Leadership, and the Future of SMU

Last weekend while at the ever-scintillating meeting of the Organization of American Historians I ran into a few friends in administrative positions at research libraries. The Bush people, they told me, have been scoping out research facilities, taking a look at how institutions try to set themselves up to house both archival records open to a wide range of researchers and provide a productive working environment for fellows. The person leading this effort was nobody other than Karl Rove, the President’s chief political strategist, and — whether you like him or not — undeniably one of the great political geniuses of American history. Rove is personally going around to these libraries, meeting with their directors and checking out their facilities. According to one colleague, he seems to know exactly what the square footage of the building will be and where it will be located on campus.

The idea that somebody as high-up in the Bush administration as he is would actually do this took me by surprise. It suggests that Bush, Rove, and company really do see their complex as a top priority. Upon further reflection, though, this is consistent with the administration’s explicit invocations of its place in history — Bush, like Harry Truman, may be unpopular, his spoksemen tell us, but his heroic struggle against terrorism will be vindicated by history. It’s also consistent with the clear effort to conceal the most damaging information about the administration, whether by using private email accounts for conducting business that should be covered by the Presidential Records Act, or by ensuring through Executive Order 13233 that George W. Bush and his heirs will be able to deny access to pretty much any records that they want.

An important backdrop to all of this is the Bush administration’s continued political collapse, which amazingly enough keeps getting worse. My sense is that this collapse makes the library-museum-institute complex all the more valuable to the Bush people: especially after the crushing defeat in the last Congressional election, the complex may be all that they will have left to leverage to secure their place in history. I wouldn’t be surprised if Rove’s days as a top political strategist are over, so perhaps a position as head of the Bush Institute would be attractive to him in a way that it wouldn’t have been earlier in his career.

All of this ought to be more reason for SMU’s faculty leadership to make sure that it asserts itself to protect SMU from being even more publicly identified with the Bush legacy. The debate on campus over the Bush complex, which has appropriately centered on the Institute, has been a godsend in this regard. At least within academic circles, if my and several colleagues’ experiences at professional conferences are any indication, SMU is known not only as the presumed site of the Bush complex, but also for the debate that has erupted on campus over the library-museum-institute. Yet this debate has happened in spite of, not because of, the university’s administration and much of its faculty leadership.

At the start of the semester, there was a widespread recognition on campus that there had to be some kind of substantive discussion about the coming of the library-museum-institute. An open faculty meeting held before the start of classes attracted nearly a third of the faculty, and the set of issues generated in that discussion were forwarded to President Turner for his response. He responded directly and in some detail a few weeks later, making a presentation and taking questions from the faculty at an open meeting for (according to several of my colleagues) the first time in his tenure as President. (That fact alone is remarkable). This meeting also provided indications that the administration wanted the debate to end. Administrators also spoke openly of their hostility toward the press, something that nearly every reporter who has spoken with me has asked me about or commented on, despite the fact that to my eyes at least the press coverage has been a huge boon to SMU. (The whole point of landing the Bush complex, according to its backers, is to raise the profile of SMU, making this animus all the more bizarre.) Faculty Senate President Rhonda Blair took this a step further in what in retrospect strikes me as the start of a concerted effort to clamp down on the debate: she lambasted the faculty for its general apathy in university governance (probably true, of SMU as most universities), understated the attendance at the first faculty meeting on the Bush complex by half, and launched an ad hominem attack on unnamed critics of the Bush complex (clearly Professors Susanne Johnson and Bill McElvaney, though she didn’t name them) for “playing to the media at the eleventh hour.”

Since then, Blair and the administration have done everything they can to bring the debate to an end, even as undeniable signs of the depth of faculty wariness about the Institute have remained in public view. (My understanding of their reasoning is that continued discord over the Bush complex — or even just over the Institute, since the Bush people have insisted that it’s a package deal — might prompt the Bush people to withdraw the offer, thereby depriving SMU of the benefits of the complex and bringing it great embarrassment.) In response to a petition signed by about a thid of the Faculty, the Faculty Senate declined to hold a faculty referendum on the advisability of the institute, in part because of a series of almost farcically convoluted procedural objections. In this discussion, many Senators spoke of the need for the Senate, as the properly-elected representative body of the Faculty, to conduct its own survey or poll of the faculty. No action was taken. After President Turner essentially ignored a mild resolution requesting clarification on a number of points about the complex, particularly the Institute, the Senate passed one resolution against the mingling of funds for concurrent appointment and deadlocked on another calling for the Institute to be brought under standard academic hiring procedures or to be organizationally and physically dissociated entirely from the campus. The deadlock on the second resolution was particularly remarkable given that the vote followed dire warnings from Provost Tom Tunks, Faculty Senate President Rhonda Blair, and several senators that the passage of the measure might do grave harm to SMU’s future by driving the Bush people to another university and crippling our next capital campaign.

One apparent result of the tie on the second measure was that the Senate belatedly moved to some kind of assessment of faculty opinion, by sending an email asking for input on the Bush complex. Seventy-something professors wrote back, with about twenty nine expressing support for the complex (either in its entirety or out of conviction that the advantages of the library and museum outweigh the disadvantages of the institute) and more than forty expressing different degrees of reservation about the institute. The comments, which preserve the anonymity of their authors, have been circulated to the faculty senate, but Senate President Rhonda Blair has declined to circulate them to the faculty as a whole. She and the administration apparently believe that further discussion of the Bush complex, particularly if it were covered by the press, is not in SMU’s best interest.

In the meantime, elections for some faculty positions have been held. The next president-elect has expressed his wariness of the institute and voted for the second Senate resolution described above, and I was elected to one of the Faculty Senate’s at-large positions, over much more senior candidates with much longer track records of university service. I take these results as reflections of the continued wariness about the Institute by the preponderance of SMU’s faculty. If the Bush complex does come to SMU, and if the Institute ends up fulfilling the fears of its detractors, the debates over the Bush complex may go on for years, and with faculty leadership more willing to hold lengthy discussion and debate.


20 Responses to Will Karl Rove be the First Head of the Bush Institute? Questions about the Bush Complex, Faculty Leadership, and the Future of SMU

  1. Maarja Krusten says:

    I have no idea what Karl Rove’s future role will be. But I am not surprised that Karl Rove has been visiting universities. According to an article in Texas Catholic, the publicly known Presidential Library committee members reportedly are Laura Bush, Marvin Bush, Craig Stapleton (husband of a Bush cousin), Dorothy Walker, Karl Rove, Harriet Miers, and Donald L. Evans. See

    BTW, I found fascinating the footage of a CBS evening news report from 1972 recently posted on YouTube. The report covers Nixon’s campaign for President and some of the activities of the Committee to Re-elect and the Republican National Committee. I recognized the footage of the RNC as I worked there as a fill in volunteer a couple of times around that time period. The CBS report has an interesting interview with a young Karl Rove, then director of a college Republicans effort. The interview segment was filmed at the RNC. I attended a number of college Republican events during the Nixon administration but don’t remember meeting Mr. Rove back then. I don’t know that he would have stood out particularly, however. Check out the clip, very interesting and for someone as old as I am, it brought back visual memories of how offices and office equipment appeared around the time I first entered the federal workforce. No sign in the CBS report of the turmoil to come later that year with Watergate, of course.

    Submitted at 5:51 pm from home

  2. Editor says:

    Sounds very interesting — do you have the link to this footage?

  3. Maarja Krusten says:

    My apologies, I forgot to include the link. Duh. Here it is


  4. Maarja Krusten says:

    In his article, “America’s Pyramids: Presidents and their Libraries,” Professor Richard J. Cox includes some interesting observations from Herbert Feis. Although the Libraries have changed in terms of statutory controls since Feis wrote about them, his words still are worth considering as they illustrate some of the competing dynamics that affect the way people may regard primary source materials:

    “Thirty years ago historian Herbert Feis wrote that the libraries were of little help in making records concerning foreign policy available in a timely fashion. Feis admitted that the ‘presidential and other memorial libraries will later on be of service and value to those who write of the safely outdistanced past. But unless present and prospective rules and restrictions are relaxed, they will not aid those who want to study and write about the … recent past.’ He continued, ‘The creation of these libraries was bathed in the light of promised revelation. They were not conceived merely as memorials and
    preservative depositories. They were hailed because of the belief that they would enable the American people to learn more – and more easily and quickly – about their past. But the light of revelation is now so filtered through curtains of reserve that the value of these institutions to the historian of the recent past is still to be proven.’ Feis believed he detected a kind of imperial guard working in the libraries: ‘Thus all the papers that may be collected by the magnetism of reputation or association are in the custody of officials who are well stitched into the executive webbing and subject to orders. In decisions about throwing open to general inspection records in the upper realm of historical interest, these archivists neither can nor will exercise independent judgment.’ Feis speculated that the ‘officials and trustees who are guardians of these collections may regard themselves also as guardians of the reputation of the memorialized individual. They may be loath to expose that reputation to sting or stain as long as living persons care deeply.’”

  5. Maarja Krusten says:

    I hope I haven’t caused any confusion by posting this comment about donor-restricted pre-Watergate Presidential Libraries under an entry about the proposed Bush Institute. Of course, the two are very different entitites. My point is that it is not unusual for living persons who “care deeply” how events are judged to have a very different perspective from those who seek to study them. There are, of course, no venues where they can talk candidly with each other. For the most part, those who create history and those who study it operate and will continue to operate in very different and separate worlds. Archivists sometimes straddle the two worlds since they may deal with people from both worlds but archival work itself is little examined and in my view, often even misunderstood.

  6. Not So Rich says:

    Well, if Karl has a post at the presidential library, at least Interpol will know where to find him when they come to arrest him for his war crimes trial at The Hague.

  7. […] Will Karl Rove be the First Head of the Bush Institute? Questions about the Bush Complex, Faculty Le… Last weekend while at the ever-scintillating meeting of the Organization of American Historians I ran into a few […] […]

  8. Tudor says:

    It’s tough for a University to resist the offer you seem to have been made. A debate around moral and ethical issues wages alongside the obvious financial and related attractions. I suppose there have been comments on the appropriateness of a Blair to get involved in it all.

    I’ve been reading how powerful leaders attain and seek to maintain power. Australian writer and blogger Jeff Schubert has been generating some interesting stuff on Murdock as well as on more historical figures such as Napoleon, Hitler, etc.

    Many Universities will be watching developments at SMU for pointers to their own specific Governance dilemmas.

  9. typingisnotactivism says:

    Good on you for running this purpose-built blog. Should serve as an interesting archive. Can’t help feeling that having a Bush Library is kind of like having a Kissinger Centre for International Peace, or a Cheney Centre for Corporate Ethics.

    Likely you have already linked this but if not

    Good luck!

  10. gustavo esquivel says:

    I find it to be quite misleading to call Mr. Rove a ‘genius’. A great many of his accomplishments have come at the expense of people’s careers, heritage, lineage, and think of all the many lives that have veen lost in iraq, Afghanistan as well as the reputation of the U.S. not to mention the huge burden placed on future generations here monetarily and the history that will be remembered by the middle east towrds the nation. There is no doubt he has done things that a great many peple did not do, could not do & chose not todo. But, do you call a man a genius who has the capability to step on the mores of society, principles, as they say in campaigns, that built this great nation? Deep down they care about their personal satisfaction not to build a great mation.

  11. heber4 says:

    That’s why I called him a “political genius,” a term which I take to as a comment about ability and influence, not morality. Rove and his circles are so influential and important that they certainly deserve serious study by journalists, political scientists, historians, etc. I don’t mind having their papers — those materials they’ve generated while in power that they haven’t managed to suppress or keep out of the purview of the National Archives. I just don’t want to give these people my university in exchange for the Bush Library.

  12. Maarja Krusten says:

    As to the capture of records and the National Archives, today’s Los Angeles Times has an interesting account of the White House email situation. See

    On the face of it, I can understand why using two email systems and separate equipment might be burdensome and even confusing. Of course, I understand the intent of the Hatch Act. And as someone who spent over a decade as a federal archivist, deciding what among Richard Nixon’s records constitute offidcial information and what constituted private-political, for the purpose of returning the latter to him and later his estate, I certainly understand the concept of private political association.

    It seems to me that the easiest way to ensure preservation of policy messages sent through a private system — something which can happen through inadvertence when toggling between systems — would be to cc your government account . Or you could go back and later forward the item to your government account. For example, if I used firstnamelastname@yahoo.com from home to take care of a work related matter after hours or while on vacation, if I wanted a copy of the message preserved on my work computer, all I would have to do is copy as a recipient from my Yahoo message the account firstnamelastname@onthejob.gov or dot edu. Or lster go into the Yahoo account outbox and forward a copy of the message to the dot gov or dot edu account to ensure its existence within the official system.

    A U.S. News & World Report story in 2004 suggested some WH officials wanted to bypass the email system. See
    When I read that in 2004, I was stunned that anyone would tell a reporter they were doing that. It suggested that whoever was talking to the reporter didn’t have a high level of “records awareness.”

    Submitted from home on personal time at 8:30 am Eastern time

  13. illvutar says:

    I think it safe to assume that Rove will not be the first head of the Bush Institue. It would be difficult a difficult job to manage from prison.

  14. George Henson says:

    Maarja Krusten wrote:

    “It seems to me that the easiest way to ensure preservation of policy messages sent through a private system — something which can happen through inadvertence when toggling between systems — would be to cc your government account . Or you could go back and later forward the item to your government account.”

    I think the point is that they don’t want “to ensure preservation of policy messages.”
    They are using separate accounts to hide their communication. They don’t want them to become part of the record.

  15. Maarja Krusten says:

    No one knows of the people in the WH now that “they don’t want ‘to ensure preservation of policy messages.'” As they say in the world of auditing, there’s no support for the statement. It’s speculative. Yes, I know some political bloggers are asserting that this is the case but I am an historian by training and in current employment. I have no way of knowing at this point if what you say is the case; neither does anyone else outside the WH. I’m sitting back and waiting to see how this plays out. Not enough facts have been revealed for me to make any blanket statements. And I say this as a former archivist with the National Archives so this issue is one I’m following very carefully, on a professional level.

    Are we seeing anomalies or systemic actions? There could be any number of explanations for the off system messages we’ve seen revealed, some benign, some not so benign. (I’ve been following this issue for some time. As early as 2004, I raised my eyebrows when I read the “It’s Yahoo, Baby” article, which described “some” people as going off system but didn’t give an indication of how many.) I’m patient, I’d rather sit back and see what happens rather than speculate at this early stage.

    Not all of this is cut and dried. I spent 14 years as a NARA employee, working with Nixon’s tapes and files doing just that, distinguishing between political and official communications. I know how complicated this is. I even fenced with Nixon’s lawyers over these issues in sworn testimony. And that was in the old days, when we merely were dealing with taped WH conversations and paper files typed by secretaries. Now there are personal computers, mobile devices and email with which to contend.

    If you haven’t read it already, take a look at this recent article in Government Executive magazine.
    You’ll notice one WH aide refers in it to matters relating to travel, advance men, etc.

    Looking at that assertion in GovExec as an historian would, we don’t know at this point what timesheets show for this employee and for others who were authorized to work both on political and on official matters. Do hours logged for payroll purposes match up with system and off system email use, as employees toggled between governmental and political work? I don’t know. Did some people just get used to using Blackberries? Forget nwhich system they were on? Or did some of them decide to deliberately bypass the official recordkeeping system? We just don’t know, yet.

    If you think this is easy to sort out, consider these passages about the Clinton White House, extracted from an article published in the National Journal (“Clearing the President for Takeoff,” April 22, 1995):

    “Until the President [Bill Clinton] activated his reelection campaign, the White House divided up travel expenses for each of his trips according to a formula that considered the time the President spent on official business and on political activities. For example, Clinton made some official appearances while in California, including giving a speech about education policy to the National Education Association in Los Angeles. Under the formula, costs associated with the official events–everything from advance work to the presidential motorcade –would be billed to the government.

    The DNC, meanwhile, would pick up the tab for any expenses associated with political events such as the Spielberg soiree. The DNC would also pay a pro-rated share of the travel bill for ‘nonessential’ personnel who traveled with the President on Air Force One to California. (The government always picks up the travel tab for people who accompany the President for security purposes or who enable him to carry out his
    24-hour-a-day responsibilities as commander in chief of the nation’s armed forces. Secret Service agents, National Security Council staff and military personnel generally fall into this category.)

    But when the President officially becomes a candidate, the rules change. If the President makes any campaign appearances during a trip, 100 per cent of the travel costs for nonessential personnel must be paid by his campaign, even if only a small part of his time during the trip is spent on political activities.

    . . . .These rules generally apply if the President attends an event where funds are raised for his candidacy or where speakers make advocacy statements for his reelection. . . . Monitoring compliance with these rules is White House associate counsel Cheryl D. Mills. She regularly discusses the President’s travel plans with colleagues in the scheduling and advance offices and with deputy chief of staff Harold M. Ickes, Clinton’s top political strategist, to make a preliminary determination of how the costs should be allocated among the government, the DNC and the campaign.

    Sometimes she even reviews the President’s speech texts to help her decide whether an appearance is official or political. After each trip, Mills reviews transcripts of what the President said during his forays and checks in with staff members to find out if any events were added to his itinerary at the last minute.”

    Of course, other issues emerged (remember the questions about telephone use for fundraising calls during the 1990s) that served as a reminder of the need to distinguish between official and political work, equipment use, etc.

    Again, given the complexity and my background in working with WH records, I’m just going to wait and see what comes out of this. On the surface, it is alarming, but we don’t know the extent, scope, and motivation — not with the type of certainty that would lead me to state anything with certainty in any history narrative I would write today, that’s for sure.

  16. […] controversy over the use of non-government emails by White House staffers, including Karl Rove (who has been heavily involved in the formulation of the Bush complex) has been a leading news story all week. Below I’ve put in some excerpts from and links to […]

  17. hdhouse says:

    Would we be safe in calling Mr. Rove, if he were to be nominated to such a position, as the “keeper of the crayon”?

    Is SMU ready for the onslaught of Bush/Rove intellectual (sic) jokes that would follow? Rove’s qualifications only flow from having photos of Mr. Bush and a pet goat and his ability to trace a horsehead on the inside of a pack of matches.

  18. […] flop-top figures prominently in the record. (Skip to the 3:55 mark or so to see Rove. Thanks to this commenter for the […]

  19. Ray says:

    Rove will rove to whatever organization pays him…

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