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.

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A History Lesson Approved by the White House

April 16, 2007

Thanks to Bush Library Blog fan “Farinata X” for calling my attention to this article from the New Republic. Along with a 2000 article about Texas A & M faculty and entanglements with the Bush people, this is most helpful in suggesting the more unpleasant of possibilities if/when the Bush complex comes to SMU. One of the most frequently-made arguments by supporters of the Library and Instititute, including some of my good friends and respected colleagues, goes something like “if the Bush Institute is going to have any academic credibility, it will have to represent a range of intellectually serious views, articulated by respectable and even prominent journalists and academics in a range of fields.” This is probably true . . . but what if the Bush people don’t want the Institute to have academic credibility, but rather simply to burnish their now-bedraggled reputations? Read this article to find out what that might look like in terms of the writing of history.

Bush’s imperial historian: White Man for the Job
Johann Hari
The New Republic
April 13, 2007

Last month, a little-known British historian named Andrew Roberts was swept into the White House for a three-hour-long hug. He lunched with George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, huddled alone with the president in the Oval Office, and was rapturously lauded by him as “great.” Roberts was so fawned over that his wife, Susan Gilchrist, told the London Observer, “I thought I had a crush on him, but it’s nothing like the crush President Bush has on him.”

At first glance, this isn’t surprising. Roberts’s latest work–A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900–sounds like a standard-issue neocon narrative. As a sequel to Winston Churchill’s famous series, it purports to tell the story of how the “Anglosphere” (Great Britain, the United States, Australia, and friends) saved the world from a slew of totalitarian menaces, from the kaiser to the caliphate. It presents Bush as the logical successor to Churchill–only Bush is, of course, even better.

Yet, beyond this surface sycophancy, there is something darker and more fetid. Bush, Cheney, and–in a recent, glowing cover story–National Review, have, in fact, embraced a man with links to white supremacism, whose book is not a history but an ahistorical catalogue of apologies and justifications for mass murder that even blames the victims of concentration camps for their own deaths. The decision to laud Roberts provides a bleak insight into the thinking of the Bush White House as his presidential clock nears midnight.

more here


RNC Email Scandal, Wide Dissemination of the Debate as Campus Awaits Decision

April 14, 2007

Nothing too dramatic has happened on campus recently, and my sense is that all of the on-campus debate about this has played out — see Steve Sverdlik’s report on the Faculty Senate meeting this week. But there are a few developments of note: The author of the Faculty Senate resolution expressing thanks to those who participated in the on-campus debate has sent me her original resolution (which was heavily amended and then failed). Click here to see it — it’s a nice summary of the ebb and flow of discussion on campus. Off-campus, newspapers in the UK, South Africa, and Australia have picked up the story of the debate, running stories very similar to the recent piece in the Chicago Tribune (so similar that they ought to have given the Trib’s reporter credit). I assume that this is because the tie to the overall politics and reputation of the Bush administration is of interest, as well as the fact that as fellow former British colonies these countries have substantial Methodist churches. Third, the reverberations of the debate within the Methodist Church continue, with a frontal attack of the Institute for Religion and Democracy’s Mark Tooley launching a vehement attack on Bush Institute foe Susanne Johnson on David Horowitz’s online journal.

The 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 some of the more thoughtful coverage, which explicitly links the email scandal to the Presidential Records Act and the question of historical documentation.

Presidential Records Evasion
The Progress Report
April 13, 2007

The Presidential Records Act (PRA) — 44 U.S.C. section 2203 — reads, “Through the implementation of records management controls and other necessary actions, the President shall take all such steps as may be necessary to assure” that the activities of the White House “are adequately documented.” Passed in 1978 by Congress to counteract Richard Nixon’s attempts to seal and destroy some of his papers, the PRA was intended to make Executive Branch leaders accountable by ensuring eventual public access to White House decision-making. In recent weeks, through the congressional investigation into the firing of eight U.S. attorneys, more evidence has come to light suggesting that senior White House officials have been using political e-mail accounts provided by the Republican National Committee (RNC), apparently (among other reasons) in an effort to evade the PRA.

Mail Saga Gets Fishier
Dan Froomkin
The Washington Post
April 13, 2007

The saga of the missing White House e-mails took a turn from the deeply suspicious to the deeply, darkly suspicious yesterday as Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman disclosed the bizarre response by the Republican National Committee to early indications that consequential White House e-mails — particularly to and from Karl Rove — were being deleted.

From 2001 to 2004, the RNC’s highly unusual “document retention” policy was to intentionally destroy all e-mails that were more than 30 days old. In the summer of 2004, due to “unspecified legal inquiries,” the RNC changed its policy by allowing — but not mandating — the indefinite retention of e-mails sent and received by White House staffers on their RNC accounts. That was just around the time special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald’s investigation of White House involvement in the leak of CIA agent Valerie Plame’s identity was kicking into high gear.


From NPR, an interview with a government watchdog and a historian on the WH e-mails

April 4, 2007

The Email Trail
NPR
March 30, 2007

Why no emails from Alberto Gonzales in the prosecutor purge document dumps? He apparently doesn’t use email. Ditto for other Cabinet members. Now some are questioning whether Bush staffers avoid email altogether, or just their official accounts. Government watchdog Melanie Sloan says there‚Äôs illegal obfuscation at work. And historian Anna Nelson explains the law that made presidential communications part of the public record.

Read the transcript of the interview, here, or listen to it, here.


A preview of a partisan presidential think tank

March 30, 2007

A preview of a partisan presidential think tank
Andrew Weaver
SMU Daily Campus
March 30, 2007

If you want a preview of the sort of disinformation that many of us expect from the proposed Bush partisan think tank at SMU, which the president told the press he wants to call the Institute on Democracy, take a gander at the opinion piece by Mark Tooley published in The Daily Campus on March 21 titled “Bush Library controversy: Who’s really ‘disconnected'”?

Mr. Tooley was employed by the CIA before he became head of the United Methodist unit (UMAction) within the neoconservative think tank the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) in Washington, D.C. He also writes a regular column for David Horowitz’s FrontPageMagazine.com. Horowitz is known for his attacks upon academic freedom and tenure and is the author of the seedy little book, “The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America.”

Continued here.


Faculty Columnist Offers Sardonic Take on Bush Institute

March 28, 2007

This from Spanish Prof. George Henson’s regular column in the Daily Campus. It starts off with a pithy description of faculty back and forth about the Institute, and then a sardonic and (to me) entertaining prophecy about the potential roster of fellows. Henson observes that “the government will probably want to open a federal prison nearby so fellows can rotate weekends while serving their sentences for corruption, perjury, obstruction of justice, and treason.” Fun, fun fun!

It’s the Institute, Stupid
George Henson
SMU Daily Campus
March 28, 2007

There is a contentious back-and-forth going on via e-mail among some SMU faculty regarding the Bush Institute.

The majority of faculty members, if not all, have finally accepted the Library as a fait accompli. Indeed, for the majority of faculty, the library is no longer the primary concern. To paraphrase James Carville, it’s the institute, stupid.

Not so much the institute as the structure of the institute. As it stands, SMU will have zero control over Bush’s eponymously oxymoronic think tank.

Concerns ranging from the institute’s policy focus (preemptive war, denying global warming, expansion of executive powers, creation of an imperial presidency, privation of civil liberties, torture) to who will hold fellowships have many faculty rightfully concerned.

More important, the prospect that departments will be required to accept co-appointments of Institute fellows who, by virtue of their appointment to the institute, will be exempt from the normal departmental hiring practices.

continued here


Military columnist links Bush Library, Critique of Bush Presidency

March 24, 2007

After 5 years, a broken military, broken Constitution, broken laws and broken troops
Joseph L. Galloway
McClatchy Newspapers
March 21, 2007

Wars are deceptively easy to get into, but harder than calculus to get out of, especially when things aren’t going well.

President Bush is learning the truth of that the hard way this week as his war in Iraq enters its fifth year. Starting He is starting off the fifth year with $400 billion already spent foolishly, 3,200 soldiers and Marines killed, more than 50,000 wounded or injured and nothing in sight but more of the same.

Remember the fall of 2002 and the beginning of 2003? How fast and easy a cakewalk it would be? How Iraq oil revenues would pay most of the cost? How our troops would mostly be greeted as liberators with flowers and chocolates? How toppling Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship would trigger a democratic wave that would sweep the Middle East?

Continued here.