The likelihood that the George W. Bush presidential library will be located at SMU has not been welcome news for at least one segment of the university community. A letter, dated December 16, from “Faculty, Administrators, & Staff” of the Perkins School of Theology to R. Gerald Turner, president of the Board of Trustees, is now circulating not only on the SMU campus but also among a wider academic community, urging the board to “reconsider and to rescind SMU’s pursuit of the presidential library.”
Texas Monthly has obtained a copy of this letter, which, as you might expect, focuses heavily on objections to Bush’s policies: “We count ourselves among those who would regret to see SMU enshrine attitudes and actions widely deemed as ethically egregious: degradation of habeas corpus, outright denial of global warming, flagrant disregard for international treaties, alienation of long-term U.S. allies, environmental predation, shameful disrespect for gay persons and their rights, a pre-emptive war based on false and misleading premises, and a host of other erosions of respect for the global human community and for this good Earth on which our flourishing depends.”
“[T]hese violations are antithetical to the teaching, scholarship, and ethical thinking that best represents Southern Methodist University.”
“Another matter that warrants our attention is that whether it aims to or not SMU will, in the long run, financially profit on the backs of hard-working Americans who feel squashed by policies they’ve now rejected at the polls. Surely it’s not the case that SMU will allow itself to benefit financially from a name and legacy that globally is associated with suffering, death, and political ‘bad faith.’ Taken together, all these issues set decision-making about the Library in a framework of inescapable ethical questions, and remind us of a key imperative adopted by many leading universities around the globe: ‘to be critic and conscience of society.'”
In addition to opposing Bush’s policies, the letter writers raise their voices against the purported mission of the library itself. Their concerns are based on a New York Daily News story of November 27, which describes the future library as a $500 million center (the costliest presidential library ever), the purpose of which would be “to spread the gospel of a presidency that for now gets poor marks from many scholars and a majority of Americans.”
The letter to Turner makes the point that there are “two fundamentally different visions of the Library”: a neutral space for unbiased academic research conducted by scholars, or a conservative think tank and policy institute that engages in legacy polishing and grooms young conservatives for public office.
I don’t have much sympathy for the main protagonists here. The folks at the Perkins School should render unto Caesar: in this case, the trustees. The decision to accept or reject a presidential library is not a moral one–and even if it were, it is not theirs to make. And if George W. Bush tries to set up a library that will vindicate his presidency, he won’t be the first president to try. But he would be the first to succeed. History is not that easy to manipulate.
The model for a presidential library is the one right here in Austin. To Lyndon Johnson’s credit, he wanted the library to be a place where, as he said at the dedication in 1971, history could be seen “with the bark off.” Unlike other presidential libraries–Nixon’s and Kennedy’s come to mind–there is no history here of the library administration treating historians it regards as unfavorable to the president differently from historians who are favorable. Ironically, the LBJ library has probably done more to advance the reputation of its subject more than any other presidential library–not by design, but simply by releasing his telephone tapes into the public sphere. That’s the way history is supposed to work.