Friday, January 26, 2007

On The Bush Library at SMU

My brother-in-law, former Dallas Morning News book critic Jerome Weeks, now writes a witty and thoughtful blog for the website In his latest posting,, he takes both the right-wing and the left-wing to task for the recent fracas at Southern Methodist University in Dallas over the possible placement of the George W. Bush Presidential Library there. Before I comment on this issue, let me include Jerome’s post:

“A quick update ...

... on the behemoth moving into my neighborhood: the Bush presidential library at SMU. Sorry if this is boring you. I won't keep going at it, I promise, and I'll get back to books.

But in tediously predictable fashion, the Dallas Morning News has been beating the drums for it (anything for development, anything for Republican development) and in equally predictable fashion, the campus liberals (teachers, students, Methodists) stupidly objected to it (the objections are stupid because they're being made on grounds that can only lose). Now, to complete all of this political theater, the Morning News has taken to beating up the liberal types just about every morning: what repressive elites they are, how they're closing off academic freedom, etc. In fact, the conservative think tank that will be built with the library sounds less like a research facility and more like a campaign office. Lee Cullum wrote an op-ed piece in the News, championing the library as just a new version of the respectable Hoover Institute (which, of course, ahem, she just happened to attend -- several times). Unfortunately for Lee, the NY Times ran a piece a few days before about how presidential libraries are pretty much propaganda machines these days. And the full irony here is: Lee and the News are defending an administration that has done everything in its power to close off historical research on presidential papers.

The fact is that I don't oppose the Bush library on political grounds. Let conservative donors waste a half-billion dollars trying to resuscitate his legacy; it'll save them from spending it on more effective programs against the rest of us. No, I oppose the library because I'm going to have to live near it.

But perhaps I shouldn't complain. The library could help my drive time. A curious fact: Highland Park (where SMU is) has loudly and successfully squashed any sensible attempt to widen Mockingbird Lane, the road that runs through HP. Mockingbird Lane would be a major, cross-town artery to Love Field, the city airport -- very convenient for the rest of Dallas -- if it weren't for the power of Highland Park's rich, white residents in preventing it from being expanded to accommodate the traffic.

Now those same residents are going to welcome what amounts to a sizable new museum and theme-park tourist attraction right on Mockingbird Lane. When people say "presidential library," they think of books, ivy-covered buildings, scholars and maybe a gift shop. Not any more, folks, they've grown gigantic. And a half-billion dollars should get the Bushes something like the Death Star of presidential libraries. I challenge the Dallas Morning News to run a sizable, aerial photo of the LBJ Library's parking lot in Austin. Maybe the paper could super-impose the entire LBJ facility and parking lot over a map of Highland Park. And LBJ, remember, was widely hated when he left office. Yet that library parking lot could accommodate a couple of 747s, it was built for so many visitors. If you want to check out my description, here's an aerial view of the LBJ complex and parking lot.

In the image, the LBJ Library is the white-ish rectangle near the center, the one with the helipad on top, alongside the long thin building that runs diagonally across the picture. The track fields on the right of the parking lot are recent additions, meaning they weren't a factor when that aircraft-carrier-size piece of tarmac was laid down.

That's what Highland Park is looking forward to: All that blacktop, and all those tourists coming to the Bush Library, trying to drive over from Love Field -- on Mockingbird Lane.

So you see, the citizens of Dallas could never get that street widened.

But I betcha the Bushes can.”

I beg to differ with Jerome on this issue. First of all, we had something like this happen on a much smaller scale where I work, at the University of Texas at Austin. They decided to name the new Molecular Biology Building after Jim Bob Moffett, owner of Freeport McMoRan, a company guilty of horrible human rights abuses and environmental damage in West Papua. The movement to prevent the naming of the building after Moffett was really student-led, I felt, and the faculty response was inadequate, and the building ended up bearing Moffett's name.

I don’t agree with Jerome that arguments made against placing the Bush library, or naming school buildings after wealthy benefactors who happen to use authoritarian regimes to terrorize labor movements in developing countries, are stupid. As Jerome points out, the administration of George W. Bush has done more than any presidency since Richard Nixon’s to close off access to public documents to historians, journalists and activists. Early in his administration W. acted to seal key records of his father’s presidency and the archives of the younger Bush’s term as Texas governor.

The plans for the Bush library seem to go well beyond the propaganda efforts of other presidential libraries. The library will include The Bush Institute, a partisan think-tank, where fellows would be appointed by a director reporting directly to the private Bush foundation, not to SMU or to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), a non-partisan agency charged with running the various presidential libraries.

Other presidential libraries, such as Jimmy Carter’s and the Hoover Institute at Stanford, support causes that are tied to the commemorated president’s ideology. Nothing new there. What is new with this library, however, is that while, for instance, the Hoover Institute promotes a general conservative worldview, the Bush Institute would have a much more narrow aim, rationalizing W.’s failed administration. This raises a legitimate question for colleges and universities like SMU. Should institutions of higher learning house a pseudo-scholarly think tank where the perspectives and conclusions are pre-determined and aims not at expanding knowledge but at rehabilitating the reputation of an incompetent leader?

Sometimes it is important simply to state a point, whether victory on the important issue at hand is immediate. Methodist ministers, historians, and other scholars had the options to put up or shut up. The protest marks a way for scholars and students to begin a conversation on Bush, on the power of the presidency, on Congress’ surrender of its war-making powers, and on how public monuments distort or fabricate history. This is not stupid or futile, but a necessary first step in truth telling.

The efforts by the SMU faculty bring to mind Martin Luther King Jr.’s bold denunciation of moral silence in his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” In his letter, King said that white Christian ministers in the South acquiesced to segregation and racial violence by their quiet and inaction. Certainly the issues faced by King were not analogous to that before SMU in gravity or scope. Nevertheless, a lesson is to be learned from the late civil rights leader. The SMU faculty realized that silent acceptance of the library would have been interpreted to mean that the SMU education community concurred with the Bush administration, its policies, and its record of deception, distortion and secrecy.

While Jerome correctly states that the arguments forwarded by the library opponents are unlikely to stop the library from opening, the SMU community has, indeed, put up rather than shut up and they have scored one important advantage in the media war over the facility.

I am guessing that the Bushes, unaware of how Democratic Dallas has become in recent years, thought that they could open the library at a safely conservative, Republican-dominated campus and score easy propaganda points, especially with the aid of their eager mouthpiece, the Dallas Morning News. The SMU protestors have denied the Bushes another cheap moment of spin. For at least the foreseeable future, the adjective “controversial” will be permanently affixed to the Bush library in newspaper coverage, and a media that compulsively rolled over for Bush before Katrina will now be forced to summarize the objections of dissenters to the library opening. The actions of the SMU liberals guarantee, as was the case when the LBJ library opened in Austin, that the library opening will bring hordes of demonstrators. Rather than beginning the historical rehabilitation of Bush 43, the launching of his library and its so-called think tank will loudly re-amplify how divisive and ugly the Bush years have been.

And, of course, there is the slim chance that the SMU protestors might succeed. In 1981, Nixon tried to place his library at his law school alma mater Duke University and pressure from faculty members led the university to, by one vote, end negotiations with the ex-president. "It was obvious this was going to be a memorial to glorify the career of Richard Nixon rather than be a repository of his papers," said Lawrence Evans, a retired Duke physics professor. The Nixon library was exiled to Yorba Linda.

Other similar movements on college campuses succeeded against the similar long odds faced by SMU’s faculty. At places like Columbia University, Berkeley, and all points in between, dissenting faculty and students have stopped military recruiting on campuses, university investment in apartheid-era South Africa, and forced schools to distance themselves from criminal corporations like Dow Chemical. These efforts were not symbolic, empty moments of political correctness. The various boycotts against South Africa, for instance, played a critical role in hastening the end of apartheid.

A final point should be made. Should the Bush Library and its Bush Institute open at SMU, it will represent a pyrrhic victory for W. and his henchmen. First off all, most people rarely go to the libraries of presidents they don’t already like. The Bush library will be preaching to an already right-wing choir. Likewise, the books and papers churned out by the Institute are hardly likely to have any impact on the larger world of academia and will have circulation primarily among the semi-literates who think Ann Coulter is funny.

Also, presidential libraries really are windows into the honored subjects' personality. I developed a habit of visiting presidential libraries when I lived in California and found that each was more revealing of the subject matter than the ex-president probably wanted. The text in the Nixon library is as paranoid, defensive and rationalizing as Nixon was. My favorite places at the Nixon library are where the text on the wall points out that Bobby Kennedy authorized wiretaps too and that the foul language he used on the Watergate tapes included words frequently heard in newsrooms. Even dead, Nixon comes off as uncomfortable, suspicion, and tirelessly jealous of the Kennedys.

Similarly, the women guides at the Regan library reminded me of the original “Stepford Wives" movie, and at the Eisenhower library in Kansas, it is obvious that Ike was much more proud of his military career than his presidential tenure. The LBJ library tries to minimize Vietnam and bends over trying to please everyone. Regardless of what heavy-handed attempts presidents make to turn their libraries into a “do over” of their White House years, these facilities, in an unintentional way, actually capture the minds and personalities of these figures, neuroses and weaknesses included.

Based on this, one can count on the Bush library to be vapid in tone and reeking of the anti-intellectualism and hatred of dissent that have marked these past six years. With the exception of the Carter Library, which became a base from which that former president planned his campaigns to monitor elections across the globe, fight AIDS and build shelters for the homeless, I can’t think of a single presidential library that has successfully reshaped how scholars felt about particular presidents.

Bush wants his library to short-circuit the scholarly process, to attempt to cut off at the pass left-leaning academics intent on studying the years 2001-2009. By the nature of their profession, however, independent historians, political scientists and journalists will get the final word.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

No comments: