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?

Universities champion unbiased inquiry. Presidential libraries often include museums that exalt their honorees with selective versions of history. The two have never meshed well. Duke University, where Richard Nixon attended law school (and broke into the dean's office to see his grades), spurned efforts to build his library there. Ronald Reagan's people wanted to locate his repository-cum-shrine at Stanford University but got a chilly response. Plans to house the Kennedy Library at Harvard ran aground in the mid-1970s.

Now, Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, the alma mater to Laura Welch Bush, is in an uproar over its bid to become the permanent home of the George W. Bush Presidential Library. Three times in three weeks the faculty has met to debate the subject. According to the campus paper, professors complained loudly, some not wishing to yoke the university's reputation to a president they considered shameful, others rejecting the plans to host a Bush Foundation-run institute that would fund pro-Bush research. But the university president, R. Gerald Turner, has remained unbowed. Whatever individual professors may think of Bush, he and his supporters say, any archives of presidential documents would be a boon for SMU.

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So, who's right?

The story begins last fall, when it became clear that Bush's people wanted SMU to house his presidential papers. The other colleges in contention were the University of Dallas, but that was too low profile, and Baylor University, but that was in Waco. As a Bush ally told the press, "You can't ask people in Dallas for $20 million until they can be sure the library won't be in Waco." (For some reason, Bush doesn't seem to have considered his own alma maters, Harvard and Yale.)

As SMU emerged as the front-runner, two theology professors, Bill McElvaney and Susanne Johnson, protested in the campus paper on Nov. 10. They wanted the administration to include the whole university community in the discussions. They also argued that Bush's most objectionable policies—the violations of international law, the premeditated preventive war and his acts of "misleading the American public"—raised "deep ethical issues" about hosting his library, and the attendant temple to him that was sure to follow.

These arguments gained support from many colleagues. But they didn't derail Turner. On Nov. 27, the New York Daily News reported that SMU would be the home for the library and that Bush's people planned to raise $500 million for it, from "wealthy heiresses, Arab nations and captains of industry." Notably, the plans also included a policy institute, answerable only to the Bush Foundation, that would, as a Bush ally told the Daily News, retain conservatives and "give them money to write papers and books favorable to the president's policies."

Besides the benefit of having an important historical collection on campus, Turner and others in SMU's leadership expect the library would lure visitors, publicity, and dollars. Some supporters also note that political passions fade over time, turning today's "principled" stands into tomorrow's "politicized" decisions. One SMU political science professor writing in the New York Times­ last weekend recalled his days as a graduate student at Duke when it refused the Nixon papers, denying the university a rich collection that would have been a magnet for historians.

On this much Turner is right: SMU should embrace the chance to host the Bush archives. The decision would entail no endorsement of his agenda, and the university could insist on some control over the museum display to ensure historical accuracy—as the incoming director of the Nixon Library, Tim Naftali, hopes to finally do at an institution long known for its twisting of history.

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.

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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