Blog to Go on Hiatus

May 18, 2007

Dear Readers —

It’s been a long, strange, sometimes frustrating but often rewarding and illuminating trip since the blog was launched in January.  Now I’m putting it on hiatus, meaning that I won’t even be attempting to keep up with whatever new developments occur (surely some kind of announcement will be made soon, perhaps even next week, after SMU’s graduation).  I’m taking this step because I think that the blog has served its purpose, helping to elucidate the key issues in the swirl of debates and to offer a wide range of resources to those participating and following the debate, a crew that has included SMU students, faculty, alumni, and administrators, as well as an international assortment of journalists, political activists, scholars, and policy-makers.  In the process, I hope that SMU has come across as the rising, accomplished institution, full of thoughtful people of diverse perspectives that I know it to be.  Another reason that this is a timely cessation is that I’ll soon be unable to keep up with the blog, as I’m off to Washington, D.C. for a research stint in the Library of Congress for my project on conservation in the Progressive Era.

If you’re just now encountering this blog, the following posts may be particularly helpful or insightful:

Presidential Library scholar Benjamin Hufbauer’s reflections on the Bush debate and the future of Presidential Libraries.

Library, Institute Proponent Reflects on Debate, Future of SMU

Dallas Historian Reflects on Bush Complex, SMU History

 A History Lesson Approved by the White House

Will Karl Rove be the First Head of the Bush Institute?

Dallas Resident Offers Perspective on Library, SMU from beyond Academia

Nebraska History Professor Weighs in on Bush Complex, SMU’s Reputation

Thanks to all, whatever your views on the subject, who have taken the time to read or make contributions.

–Ben Johnson

‘Smirking Chimp’ Satirizes Bush Library

May 15, 2007

This is extremely unlikely to convince anybody of anything that they don’t already believe, but does provide some entertainment . . .

Set In Stone:  Chiselling Away at the Bush Library

by Jaime O’Neill | May 10 2007 – 9:14am | permalink

I said I was looking for a book to read, Laura said you ought to try Camus. I also read three Shakespeares. … I’ve got a eck-a-lec-tic reading list.”
–George W. Bush, interview with NBC’s Brian Williams, New Orleans, La., Aug. 29, 2006

In anticipation of the day when George W. Bush is no longer in office, it is perhaps appropriate to give some thought to the prospect of a George W. Bush Presidential Library. The concept may seem oxymoronic to some. After all, how do we go about building a library for a man who appears so proud of his alienation from printed matter? He boasts of not reading newspapers, and there is little to be found in any of his public statements to suggest a familiarity with any book, whatsoever. The thought of our current president reading, say, Shakespeare, defies imagining. It is difficult to think of him reading Danielle Steele, or John Grisham, let alone the Bard of Avon.

But if the Bush presidency has been about anything, it’s been about breaking free of the fetters of the traditional past. It was the Bush presidency, after all, that did away with the fussy old notion about the U.S. not engaging in unilateral acts of first-strike aggression against sovereign nations. It was George Bush, after all, who redefined a “conservative” as someone who believed in enormous deficits. And it was the Bush administration that accelerated the separation of language from action by constantly saying one thing while meaning another; i.e. “Clear Skies” initiatives, and “No Child Left Behind.”

Given all that, it may turn out that the George W. Bush Presidential Library (or, perhaps, “Liberry”) will be equally surprising in the ways it breaks with tradition, and with meaning.

But one tradition that probably won’t be broken is the time-honored practice of commemorating presidential bon mots by chiseling them in marble. Immortal ideas expressed in the president’s own immortal language.

Consider what might be chiseled in stone over the door to the education wing of the Bush Liberry, for instance. “Is Our Children Learning?” would make a most fitting presidential quote emblazoned above the portal to the Bush Hall of Lurning, a monument to the Bush administration’s heroic struggle to improve American education. Or, if a more timeless quality is required for future visitors to the Bush Liberry, the president’s observation from January 23, 2004, might suffice: “The illiteracy level of our children are appalling.”

more here

University Park Vote Approves Land Sale

May 14, 2007

Especially after this result, I’m still betting on an announcement shortly after our graduation, which is this Saturday, May 19.

Voters approve land sale for Bush library

01:24 AM CDT on Sunday, May 13, 2007
By KRISTEN HOLLAND / The Dallas Morning News

Southern Methodist University has permission to buy a tiny park that could be the last puzzle piece needed to build the George W. Bush Presidential Library project.

University Park voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot proposal Saturday allowing the city to sell Potomac Park to SMU. Officials at SMU, which learned in December that it’s the lone finalist to host the facility, have said the land could be used as part of the library site.

More On University Park Vote

May 6, 2007

This weekend the Dallas Morning News ran the most extensive coverage yet of the politics of the Potomac Park vote in University Park.  The map accompanying the article offers a clear depiction of the patterns of land ownership and land use in the area where the Bush complex will be built.  The article covers the organization and lobbying efforts in favor of the sale of the Potomac strip, but virtually none to those opposed, so I’m left with something of a mystery as to why this vote is in doubt.

Historian of Presidential Libraries Reflects on SMU, Bush Debate

May 4, 2007

Many thanks to Professor Benjamin Hufbauer of the University of Louisville for this guest blog. Hufbauer’s book, Presidential Temples: How Memorials and Libraries Shape Public Memory (Kansas, 2006) is the key work on the subject of Presidential Libraries.

A Possible Turning Point for Presidential Libraries

When I was finishing my book on presidential libraries two years ago, I wondered what would happen when the George W. Bush Library was announced and fund-raising for it began. I imagined that there would be some newspaper articles about the Bush II Library, but overall I thought that there would be little questioning of the problematic aspects of this peculiarly American institution.

I was wrong. Even before the final announcement (expected any day now) that SMU will be home to the Bush II Library, there have been dozens of newspaper articles and editorials that have not just mentioned this newest library, but have discussed the history of presidential libraries and, more importantly, addressed the need for reform. And the Bush Library Blog, ably run by Professor Benjamin Johnson, has become a remarkable resource for those (including reporters) who are interested in this issue. I believe the Bush Library Blog has raised the level of discourse on presidential libraries, because reporters can learn a great deal about presidential libraries in a short period of time from this web site, and therefore can write articles with greater depth. In part as a result of the critical media attention the Bush II Library has already generated, The House of Representatives has passed two pieces of legislation, by veto-proof majorities, overturning Executive Order 13233 (which limits access to the records in presidential libraries), and requiring the disclosure of donors to presidential libraries. This is beyond my wildest hopes of two years ago. At times I’m a bit of a pessimist, but I believe we may have reached a turning point in the history of the presidential library.

What’s needed now, in my opinion, is constant vigilance and critical engagement. I found from researching and writing my book that the history of presidential libraries is punctuated by presidents attempting to use these institutions to further their own ends. In other words, most presidents want these institutions to be white-washed shrines to their egos, rather than institutions that truly serve the public and serve history. This is not a partisan issue. It cuts across party lines, and affects the libraries for Democratic as well as Republican presidents.

In fact the first federal presidential library, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, New York, faced some of the issues that we are still facing with the Bush II Library. FDR, political genius that he was, still faced controversy in selling the idea of a presidential library to the public, to Congress, and to historians. One critic said that FDR wanted “a Yankee Pyramid,” and in a sense that was true. An editorial comic from the time shows FDR dressed up as Santa Claus putting a giant present of a presidential library in his own stocking. But ultimately, FDR sold the presidential library-and got the crucial backing of historians-by saying that the complete records of his administration would be available to historians in a timely manner. In secret, however, FDR wanted something different. Roosevelt wanted to be able to select what records historians could see and which documents would be barred forever from their view. Realizing that he might not get to this vast task before his death, he appointed a committee of political allies to do this job for him.

But FDR’s secret plan to censor the Roosevelt Library’s archive was overturned by a federal judge after Roosevelt’s death. The judge correctly ruled that FDR’s public statements promising access to all records-consistent with the requirements of national security and the feelings of living persons-were more important than his contrary private wishes. And so the dream that FDR presented to the public, to Congress, and to historians came to pass. By the 1950s more than 80% of the records in the FDR Library were open to researchers, and today that figure is 99%. The thousands of books and articles that have been written using the archive of the Roosevelt Library, and other presidential libraries, have helped us learn from our history.

But what Roosevelt was unable achieve with his secret plan, President George W. Bush has so far been able to attain with his infamous Executive Order 13233. This order allows presidents, their representatives, and even descendants long after a president’s death to control the records in presidential libraries. Although so far only a small number of records have been blocked from release by this order, the potential for the abuse of power exists and will persist. 13233 is contrary to the letter and spirit of the laws that previously governed presidential libraries, which is why it is so important that Congress act to overturn it. If the order stays in place, the George W. Bush Library will be of limited value to historians.

There are other issues that are also of importance when it comes to presidential libraries. These include the lack of funding for archivists to process the records in presidential libraries (currently the Office of Presidential Libraries estimates it will take up to 100 years to process the records in recent presidential libraries, because of a lack of archivists), the issue of how the museums in presidential libraries usually present an extended campaign commercial in museum form rather than real history, and finally the issue of the partisan Bush Institute, which , in my opinion, should not be associated with SMU in any way because it does not fit with a university’s academic mission.

When it comes to presidential libraries, it is important not to give in to the worst impulses of presidents and their supporters, for then they may try to create a temple of political propaganda that does not serve the public. It is important to struggle with these issues and remain engaged so that presidential libraries can be created that serve their regions and the nation. And this is possible. I believe the best presidential library in the system at this time is the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri. The Truman Library has an excellent museum that presents a thought-provoking history of the 1940s and 1950s, it has an archive noted for its accessibility because of the talents of the wonderful archivists who work there, and it has an innovative educational program called The White House Decision Center where students get to play the roles of historical figures in a recreation of the West Wing. Many talents went into remaking the Truman Library over the last twenty years, but one of the most important was former director Larry Hackman. Hackman wanted to make a presidential library that made people think. Once, at a meeting on presidential libraries at Princeton University, Larry Hackman said to me, almost in a whisper, “I don’t like it when people say ‘Truman’s Library,’ or ‘Reagan’s Library.’ It is The Truman Library or The Reagan Library. These institutions are not owned by these individuals or their families.” Or at least they should not be.

SMU Student Paper Names McElvaney, Johnson SMU ‘Persons of the Year’

May 4, 2007

A fine tribute to professors William McElvaney and Susanne Johnson from today’s Daily Campus

The honorable opposition
Bill McElvaney and Susanne Johnson are the SMU Persons of the Year

By: The Daily Campus Ed Board
May 4, 2007

The Daily Campus Editorial Board is proud to announce that Bill McElvaney and Susanne Johnson are the SMU Persons of the Year.

Their courage to speak out against the George W. Bush Presidential Library complex triggered the discussion within the SMU community about what the project would do for our school.

Before they submitted an opinion piece to the editorial page, there was no ongoing dialogue about what the library project would mean for SMU. It seemed to be generally accepted that at some point there would be an announcement and everyone would embrace what would happen.

But everything changed on Nov. 10, 2006.

A series of events after the opinion piece was published thrust SMU into the national spotlight. A little more than a month after the piece was published, SMU was announced as the sole finalist in the race for the library. That awkward designation sent the debate into overdrive. (When are we going to find out if we get the library or not? Seriously.)

The faculty of SMU woke up from their slumber and started to talk amongst themselves. People with concerns began bringing up issues before the Faculty Senate. Our own editorial page has been filled with opinion pieces from both sides of the debate the entire semester.

The library debate even had a pop culture moment when the two professors were featured during “The Word” on “The Colbert Report” in January.

But finally, a true debate over the merits of the complex began to take place.

After a few weeks it was whittled down to this question: What is the Bush Institute and how will it fit in to SMU?

This more nuanced approach to the issue allowed for supporters and critics to have a strong, yet professional debate over the topic. The Faculty Senate passed a series of resolutions that were passed on to President Turner and the Board of Trustees.

But McElvaney and Johnson became the face of an honorable opposition to the institute. They penned additional opinion pieces and agreeed to interviews with this paper and many other media organizations.

We give them credit because they never made the debate about themselves. It was always raising questions about what would be best for the school they cared about so much.

They both set good examples for every student on this campus.

Don’t sit on the sidelines if you really care about something. Get involved and make a difference.

They did, and that’s why they are our SMU Persons of the Year.

University Park Election Awaits; Is An Announcement Pending?

May 1, 2007

This past weekend’s Dallas Morning News ran a report on the May 12 University Park election, which includes a ballot measure to give approval to the municipality to sell a small strip of land to SMU for potential use in the Bush complex.  “No Park Cities election in recent years,” reporter Kristen Holland writes, “has garnered nearly as much attention from residents, let alone such high-profile figures,” including eight former mayors and a campaign-consulting firm hired by SMU.  Perhaps this pending election is one reason that no announcement has been made as to whether a final deal has been struck between SMU and the Bush people, despite the fact that university spokespeople have been telling reporters that “it’s a matter of weeks, not months” since February?  Bulldozers have all but cleared the old University Gardens apartment complex, and earlier this week I heard a staff member talking about how “people from DC” were already coming down to Dallas, so this may all be a done deal, with details revealed later.