The Secret History

Should SMU have reservations about proceeding with the Bush presidential library? Yes—but not for the reason most of its critics have cited.

March 2007By Comments

AT THE SAME TIME THAT a discussion of George W. Bush’s legacy is taking place in our pages (see “The Test of Time,”), a parallel conversation has Dallas and the rest of the country buzzing. The likelihood that the Bush presidential library, along with a museum and a think tank, will be located on the campus of Southern Methodist University has drawn students and faculty alike into heated debate over whether the project is, to quote its critics, “an asset or an albatross.”

The controversy began last November, when two professors at the Perkins School of Theology published a piece in the Daily Campus that questioned whether SMU’s leadership should weigh the record of the Bush administration in considering whether to bid for the library. “What does it mean ethically for SMU to say a war violating international law makes no difference?” wrote William K. McElvaney, professor emeritus of preaching and worship, and Susanne Johnson, associate professor of Christian education. “What moral justification supports SMU’s providing a haven for a legacy of environmental predation and denial of global warming, shameful exploitation of gay rights and the most critical erosion of habeas corpus in memory?”

A month later, Texas Monthly was leaked a draft of a letter originating at the Perkins School in which administrators, faculty, and staff urged SMU president R. Gerald Turner and the university’s board of trustees to reject the library on moral grounds. Many of the arguments for rejection were those mentioned in McElvaney and Johnson’s article in the Daily Campus. I posted a short commentary about the letter on my blog,, expressing my opinion that the decision was an academic issue, not a moral one, and suggesting that the Perkins authors “render unto Caesar.” I fully expected the tempest to remain confined to the teapot. So much for my brilliant foresight. The blog article was picked up the next day by, a widely read political blog, and within minutes my e-mail inbox was overflowing with comments. The Bush library turned out to be a national story—and it still is.

Many of the comments were outright attacks on Bush:

Shouldn’t the President at least be able to read in order to have a library dedicated to him? This W is a complete moron, always was always will be. Besides, building a library as an attempt to rewrite history is just down right criminal. This man needs to be Impeached and tried for his war crimes along with every other member of his administration. Period.

Others vented their feelings about SMU:

That school epitomizes the Bush doctrine of elitism and cronyism. In Texas, SMU is the school for the children of the “haves and the have mores.” Most who attend, like Bush, had it made before they ever set foot on the campus. Academically the school is average at best, but the degree carries the clout of being in the club of the entitled elite. That sounds like a perfect fit for the G.W. Bush Presidential Library. Bring it on.

Very few correspondents dealt with the question of whether the decision to accept the library involved moral issues. One who did had this to say:

Your blithe suggestion that the seminary professors “render unto Caesar” is a misinterpretation of Jesus’ words. So Christian leaders are supposed to passively accept the actions of the establishment without complaint? To say so is to dismiss the prophetic voices of Oscar Romero, the Wesleys, Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesus himself. Whether this is a moral issue is a debatable one, granted. But should these guys be excluded from that debate? And why does it matter that it’s “not their decision to make?”

All good questions. Religious leaders—and, for that matter, ordinary citizens—have every right to invoke the cause of morality in political debate. Politicians do so all the time. But many of the concerns of the Perkins authors strike me as falling more on the political side of the line than the moral side. Is “alienation of long-time U.S. allies” a moral issue, or is it a reflection of the divergence of the allies’ national self-interest from our own? Is “shameful disrespect for gay persons and their rights” a moral issue, or does it represent one side of a two-sided political argument about whether gays should be accorded rights as a group? Is “a pre-emptive war based on false and misleading premises” a moral issue or is it the result of bad intelligence and blind obeisance to ideology? I happen to disagree with the Bush administration’s position in each case, but I regard its failings as political rather than moral.

The Perkins School authors wrote in their draft letter, “We count ourselves among those who would regret to see SMU enshrine attitudes and actions widely deemed as ethically egregious …” I challenge this major premise: that by the act of accepting the library, SMU would enshrine, say, denial of global warming and disrespect for gays. Did the University of Arkansas enshrine sexual dalliances with interns by locating its public affairs school in the same complex with the Clinton library? Did the University of Texas enshrine stealing U.S. Senate elections in South Texas, or make itself complicit in the deaths of 58,000 Americans in Vietnam, when it offered to have LBJ’s library on campus? Of course not. The question of whether the library is a benefit to SMU should stand on its own. And the answer—based on my own experience with the LBJ library—is unequivocally yes. A presidential library draws eminent scholars to the campus, not just to do research but also to participate in symposiums in which students and members of the larger community can hear discussions of important issues and ideas.

The issues that most worry me about the library are not the moral questions but questions about George W. Bush’s penchant for secretiveness and his exalted sense of his own power and prerogatives. In view of the actions he has already taken as president—to restrict public access to historical materials and install himself as the gatekeeper—there are legitimate concerns that the library will be engaged primarily in the act of blocking access rather than granting it. SMU can do nothing about this. The Bush library complex will be a federal installation, run by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). The library project, which must be privately funded, also includes the Bush Institute, a think tank, over which the university will likewise have little control. The scenario that some critics foresee is that Bush will be able to control access to the historical record at the library while simultaneously arranging “legacy polishing” at his institute.

The first president to establish a library for his papers was Franklin Roosevelt. At that time, following a tradition dating back to George Washington, presidential documents were considered to be private property; they became public when an ex-president assigned them to NARA in a deed of gift. The rules changed during Watergate, when Congress passed a law giving NARA custody of Richard Nixon’s papers and tapes. In 1978, during the Carter administration, Congress enacted the Presidential Records Act (PRA), which declares presidential documents to be public property and requires future presidents to turn them over to NARA when leaving office. The papers are to remain closed for five years while archivists organize them. At the end of that period, interested parties can request to see documents that have been processed. The rest can be obtained only by using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Even then, confidential advice remains closed for twelve years. Unfortunately, this system has not worked very well. Researching FOIA requests can be so time-consuming that the three libraries governed by the PRA (Reagan, Bush 41, Clinton) have an enormous backlog, which leaves little time for archivists to prepare and sort other papers for public release after the initial five-year period. The Reagan library, in its first fourteen years, released 7 million pages of an estimated 44 million. At that pace, it could take almost a century to release everything.

President Bush made the process even more restrictive with an executive order issued in November 2001. As one prominent historian wrote, “Bush’s new order would turn the PRA on its head, effectively gutting it by reversing its premise of open access.” The order gives both an incumbent president and a former president veto power over the release of the former president’s documents after the twelve-year period on the grounds of executive privilege. In addition, anyone seeking documents must show a “demonstrated, specific need” (a requirement that has never been invoked). Both current and former presidents are given additional time (unlimited in the case of the incumbent president) to review the documents, instead of the thirty days established by the PRA. Finally, the order permits a former president to bequeath his power to deny access, so that the veto can be exercised even after his death. Between the inevitable FOIA backlog and the potential for a perpetual veto, SMU could end up with a library of documents that will mostly never be seen. However, since Bush issued his order, 1.8 million pages of records have been made public and only 64 pages have been withheld due to executive privilege.

In recent weeks, the focus of the criticism has shifted to the think tank, which would be governed by a family foundation, not the university. Susanne Johnson, one of the co-authors of the original Daily Campus article, has written another in which she said, “A partisan institute runs counter to our mission as a university … ” But the project has been offered to interested universities as a package deal—take it or leave it. An SMU official, speaking privately, told me that the university is entering negotiations for oversight, such as (hypothetically) holding seats on the foundation board. In the event that fellows at the institute have joint appointments to SMU’s academic departments, they will have to submit to peer review and other university governance procedures.

Several contributors to our cover story argue that it may take twenty or thirty years to know the whole story of the Bush presidency—in particular, whether his vision for Iraq and the Middle East has been achieved. The irony is that his own directives may make it impossible for historians to examine the record.

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