Watchdog Blog

Gilbert Cranberg: Will the Bush Library Tell It Like It Was?

Posted at 12:43 pm, February 2nd, 2009
Gilbert Cranberg Mug

Now that George W. Bush has vacated the Oval Office he will have time on his hands, some of which he plans to devote to the George W. Bush Presidential Center on the campus at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. That may not be altogether welcome to some SMU faculty and staff. Word that the three-pronged center — library, museum and public policy institute –would be located on campus caused members of the school of theology to voice regret “to see SMU enshrine attitudes and actions widely deemed as ethically egregious.“ A group of Methodists, including 10 active and retired bishops, declared in a petition that “the linking of [Bush’s] presidency with a university bearing the Methodist name is utterly inappropriate.”

Will their worst fears be realized and the Bush center become a propaganda mill dedicated to lauding Bush’s eight years in Washington? The library and museum will be operated by the National Archives and Records Administration, (NARA), which has a reputation for neutrality at the other presidential libraries and museums it administers. But how open it will be to mounting exhibits critical of the Bush years will bear watching. The public policy institute, “which will host officials, scholars and others for research and symposia,” will be under the thumb of the Bush Foundation, independent of the university. The university administration says everything will be in keeping with its “commitment to open inquiry and academic freedom within the university.”

One way to discourage the Bush Presidential Center from degenerating into a whitewash of the Bush years would be for academics and others with an interest in keeping the historical record straight to announce their determination to do just that.

If the Bush Presidential Center, for instance, soft-soaps the administration’s human-rights record, civil liberties and human rights groups could let it be known they are prepared to mount exhibits showing the varieties of “enhanced interrogation techniques” employed at Guantanamo and elsewhere. If SMU would not make exhibit space available on-campus, the groups could announce willingness to rent space nearby.

The same sort of counter-exhibiting can be done with many of the issues that brought the administration into disrepute — its wholesale use of “signing statements” to undercut the intent of Congress, its exaggeration of the military threat posed by Iraq, its censorship of government scientists on global warming, to name just a few of the subjects that might lend themselves to graphic exhibits.

There would be no shortage of material. The Center for Public Integrity recently issued a report citing “more than 125 systematic [Bush administration] failures across the breadth of the federal government…in areas as diverse as education, energy, the environment, justice and security, the military and veterans affairs, health care, transportation, financial; mangement,, consumer and worker safety, and more.”

No doubt Bush’s accomplishments will be celebrated, as they should be, at the Bush Presidential Center. But let there also be a full and honest accounting. A university with a commitment to critical inquiry is just the place for the Bush years to be on display, warts and all, Let the Bush Center’s doors open and the light shine in.

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