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.

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

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