Should SMU accept the Bush Library?

The history behind current events.
Jan. 31 2007 11:40 AM

George Bush Goes to College

Should SMU accept his presidential library?

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On the other hand, the SMU faculty are right to reject the proposed think tank. In its original article, the Daily News alsosaid that the proposed institute would mimic Stanford's Hoover Institution—a dubious precedent. A right-wing think tank, Hoover (also named for a former president) has a schizophrenic personality: It plays home to many eminent scholars of on the right (and some liberals) and produces much sound scholarship. But it also provides a nominal perch for former right-wing politicians and operatives utterly lacking in scholarly distinction, such as Spencer Abraham, Newt Gingrich, and Ed Meese—not to mention outright propagandists and ideologues such as Dinesh D'Souza and Tod Lindberg.

When Hugh Hewitt, the original director of the Nixon Library, said he would screen and bar insufficiently pro-Nixon researchers, he was countermanded and sacked. The SMU administration, in contrast, has yet to condemn the vision of the Bush institute expressed in the Daily News. Insisting the deal is "all or nothing," Turner has told professors they needn't worry. He says that because the institute would answer only to the Bush Foundation, its projects won't reflect on the university itself. And perhaps the Hoover Institution's employment of a few partisans hasn't hurt Stanford's reputation—though it surely hasn't helped it, either.

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Many critics of the Bush project, including Susanne Johnson, have offered to compromise, accepting the library but drawing the line at the proposed think tank. This is the wisest course. A university, committed to disinterested scholarship as a first principle, can't in good conscience support a center devoted to what is avowedly political propaganda.

And propaganda is the issue. A measure of spin at presidential libraries is one thing, to be grudgingly tolerated. The deliberate politicization of expert authority is another. And such manipulation has been the Bush administration's hallmark. From the counting of the vote in the 2000 election to the selection of intelligence before invading Iraq; from denying scientific support for global warming to supporting creationism in public schools; from rejecting the opinions of medical experts in the Terri Schiavo case to rejecting the opinion of legal experts in the judicial-selection process; even in its labeling of mainstream news sources as partisan—consistently, Bush has, like the most facile Postmodernists, denigrated the expertise of long-standing authorities, deeming their claims to authority mere masks for a political agenda. Every indication suggests that the Bush people view historians the same way.

SMU faculty members are pessimistic about stopping the institute. But they may have recourse. As the New York Times reported recently, no-confidence votes have been toppling presidents at a range of colleges, from Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., to Case Western Reserve in Cleveland to Baylor. Perhaps SMU's board of trustees will see the folly in erecting a propaganda mill on campus. Then again, the board of trustees' most famous member is also its most politically prominent alumna.

David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers and author of three books of political history, has written the "History Lesson" column since 1998.

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