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.

SMU Chaplain Urges Awareness of Religous Right’s Newfound Interest in SMU

April 30, 2007

Last Friday the SMU Daily Campus ran an insightful piece by the Rev. William Finnin, the University’s chaplain.  Entitled “The Other Institute Interested in SMU,” the opinion piece focuses on the Institute for Religion and Democracy (IRD), tracing its history and close ties to the Bush administration.  Finnin closes with a guarded call for SMU community members to think about what greater interest and involvement by organizations such as the IRD might portend for the university:

Like as not, IRD will join other groups of greater visibility on the periphery of the academy if and when Bush’s Library complex comes to campus. According to The Dallas Morning News, IRD is quite interested in seeing the university’s currently-extended invitation formalized, despite Mr. Tooley’s disclaimer. IRD’s self-insertion into the conversations currently underway at SMU portends much broader interest by similar institutes likely to cluster around Bush’s Institute for Democracy wherever it is located. Irrespective of the kind of welcome IRD finds on campus, it’s certain they’ll be watching us and taking notes. It might be wise to sharpen our understanding of academic, intellectual and political freedom as well as the relevance of SMU’s United Methodist Heritage while keeping our own eyes open and alert.

Library, Institute Proponent Reflects on Debate, Future of SMU

April 29, 2007

Thanks to my colleague in Political Science, Matthew Wilson, for this thoughtful and reflective guest blog.  Wilson has been one of the most outspoken — and in my view, articulate and compelling — proponents of the Bush complex.  Here he turns his attention to what the Bush Library and Institute and the debate over it might mean for the future of SMU.

–Ben Johnson


I’d like to thank Ben Johnson for inviting me to say a few words in this forum about our discussion and debate over the Bush Library complex. I welcome the opportunity to communicate with a group of readers who, in the main, do not share my position on this issue. Too often, because of our natural tendency to communicate disproportionately with those who share our own perspectives, we come to believe that our own stance is held by all reasonable/intelligent/moral people. When it comes to the complicated issue of SMU’s relationship with the proposed Bush Policy Institute, however, this is clearly not the case-for any side. Thoughtful and decent people, all of whom genuinely care about this university and its future, disagree about how we should regard the coming of the Institute.

I have made no secret of my own views on this score. In pieces in The Dallas Morning News and Congressional Quarterly Researcher, as well as in an open letter to my faculty colleagues, I have laid out my reasons for enthusiastically supporting SMU’s bid to host the Library, the Museum, and yes, even the Institute. I will not rehash those here-those who are interested can read these statements and evaluate them on their own merits. Instead, I will reinforce two key points: that our positions on the Bush Library complex should not be driven by political judgments of this administration, and that this discussion ties in with broader questions about what kind of institution SMU wants to be.

Opposition to the Bush complex seems to come in two basic varieties: narrowly tailored objections to the proposed structural and administrative relationship between SMU and the Bush Institute, and broad-based moral and/or ideological indictments of the Bush administration, often accompanied by expressions of revulsion at the prospect that SMU would host any facility associated with President Bush. The former I regard as legitimate concerns for us to work through together as a university community; the latter, whether merited or not, I see as irrelevant and unhelpful in this particular discussion. If the standard for hosting a presidential library is that the president in question must not have engaged in behaviors or promulgated policies that many find deeply immoral, then I would submit that no institution could ever accept one.   Richard Nixon initiated secret bombings of Laos and Cambodia, sought to undermine the integrity of the electoral process through the Watergate break-in, and would have been impeached had he not resigned. Bill Clinton twice vetoed bans on partial birth abortion, committed adultery in the Oval Office (literally), perjured himself while president, and was impeached. Lyndon Johnson misled the country about events in the Gulf of Tonkin to get authorization for a divisive war that dwarfs the scale of the Iraq conflict. Ronald Reagan initiated a massive defense buildup and cut taxes on the wealthy at the same time that he slashed many social programs.

I could go on and on about the actions and policies of former presidents that many would deem immoral, but the point is that I would have enthusiastically welcomed the library complexes of any of these presidents if they had wanted to locate on the SMU campus. Becoming the site for such a facility is not tantamount to endorsing any of the president’s specific ideas or behaviors. The University of Texas did not sanction the Vietnam War by accepting the LBJ museum and school, any more than Stanford assumed responsibility for the Great Depression by hosting the Hoover Institution. As hard as it may be for some, we must put aside sweeping judgments about whether the Bush presidency has been a “failure” and catalogs of the administration’s alleged misdeeds when it comes to deciding whether SMU should host the library complex. The record shows that it is the libraries and museums of our nation’s most controversial presidents that have attracted the greatest interest from scholars and visitors alike.

On the second point, the relationship between the library complex and SMU’s long-term trajectory, I believe that this university is potentially poised on the cusp, with apologies to Chairman Mao, of a “Great Leap Forward.” In a post below from April 15th, Ben rightly lauds the comments of one anonymous SMU faculty member who, rather than coming out clearly for or against the Bush Institute, stresses that the key question for our university’s future is what else we do. If our goal is to become a “first-class research university,” well known nationally as opposed to just regionally, then we must evaluate all of our collective decisions through this prism. Making this jump into the top tier of national universities will require principally two things (in addition to good university leadership and wise programmatic decisions): a significant pool of financial resources and increased institutional notoriety. The Bush Library complex will undoubtedly provide both-it will increase the pool of donors for whom SMU is on the radar screen (and, more to the point, not alienate the donor base that is already quite generous toward our institution), and dramatically expand the number of people, both inside and outside of academia, who are exposed to the university’s considerable attractions. The library, museum, and institute, and their associated programs, will create tremendous research synergies for many of our departments, especially in the social sciences. I have tremendous confidence that we as an institution can and will successfully manage the stresses that will inevitably come with a campus addition of this magnitude, and that we will not shrink from our first (and best) opportunity to take a bold and dramatic step forward in institutional growth.

As a final note, I should say that my confidence in our ability as a university to manage this transition (should it come to pass) has been bolstered by observing the discussion and debate on this campus over the last few months. The Faculty Senate (a body to which, perhaps ironically, Ben and I will both be inaugurated next week) has been very thoughtful and deliberate in its consideration of the many facets of the library complex proposal. More broadly, we as a community have engaged in a lively and vigorous exchange of ideas in open fora, campus publications, emails, external media outlets, and more informal one-on-one conversations. Most of this discussion has been both cordial and constructive; to be sure, a few voices have tended toward condemnation of those with opposing views (see the reference to Institute supporters, among the anonymous comments below, as “Scooter Libbys on our faculty”), but those have been remarkably limited in a discussion as momentous as this one. For good or for ill (or, more likely, some combination of both), a decision to host the Bush Library, Museum, and Institute would be one of the most significant events in this university’s history. No one on campus will be unaffected by it, positively and/or negatively. Even though it represents, in my view, a tremendous opportunity that we would be foolish to turn down, the details of the relationship still merit serious discussion and debate. I appreciate the opportunity to contribute to that debate here.

J. Matthew Wilson

Associate Professor of Political Science

Library Journal Article about the Bush Library Blog

April 29, 2007

LJAN Newsmaker Interview: Bush Library Blog Founder and Moderator Benjamin Johnson
Library Journal
April 26, 2007

Without question, blogs have become vital communication tools on campuses-and a good example is the Bush Library Blog, started by Benjamin Johnson, associate professor of history at Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas. In December 2006, SMU was named the finalist to land the Bush Library and an accompanying policy institute, but many SMU faculty members have since raised serious questions. The Bush Library Blog has proven a vital place for discussion, garnering as many as 1000 hits per day. The Library Journal Academic Newswire (LJAN) caught up with Johnson to discuss the Bush Library process, his own feelings on the library and policy institute, and the role the blog plays in the discussion at SMU.

LJAN: You started the Bush Library Blog and members of the Methodist Church distributed an online petition. Does this say something about how technology is enabling discussion and debate?

BJ: I moderate and started the blog not only to forward my own views on the subject, but also to expedite a wider discussion, which I think neither the SMU administration nor the elected leadership of the Faculty Senate has wanted. A blog is a comparatively low-labor, wide-distribution way of doing this, and I can’t imagine any way offline of accomplishing this. The blog is read by several hundred people a day, sometimes more like 1000, from across the U.S. and multiple other nations, by academics, interested lay people, journalists, congressional staffers, and others. So in some modest sense my experience bears out some of the claims made by Internet boosters about how these new technologies enable communications and networks of information that conventional print sources would not.

Continued here.