Today’s New York Times has an op-ed piece by James Hollifield, the director of the [John] Tower Center for Political Studies at SMU, making the case for acceptance of the controversial George W. Bush presidential library by the university’s trustees. Hollifield writes that he was a graduate student at Duke when that university had to decide whether to accept the papers of Richard Nixon, a graduate of its law school. Duke did not accept the library, a decision Hollifield belives was a mistake.
Hollifield, who serves on a planning committee for the library, argues, “Whether one supports or opposes the Bush policies, there is no question that they have been momentous for the country and the world. Precisely because of the controversial nature of this presidency, the question of how George W. Bush made his decisions begs for scholarly research and discourse. The library will be a gold mine for scholars, and its location on a university campus symbolizes the need for study.”
The political science professor also invokes the Johnson library as a precedent: “As bad as the situation may seem today, back in 1971, when the University of Texas dedicated a library and school named for Lyndon Johnson, the country was in even greater turmoil. A storm of controversy raged over the Johnson papers (emphasis added). I think the University of Texas made the right decision to accept the papers and build the library and school.”
I was surprised to read about the “storm of controversy.” When I first wrote about the opposition to the library at SMU in December, I did some less-than-exhaustive research about whether there had been protests about UT’s acceptance of the LBJ Library. All I could find was that there had been protests at the dedication ceremony, not about UT’s acceptance of the library, but about the attendance of President Nixon.
Another op-ed piece in today’s Times, written by an art history professor at the University of Louisville, touches on the problem of “spin” at the museums associated with presidential libraries: They tend to glorify the life and career of the president. The museum at the George H. W. Bush library at Texas A&M belongs to this genre, and so does the museum at the Reagan library in Los Angeles, where I saw George W. Bush give his first foreign policy address as a presidential candidate in 1999. The Johnson library, to its credit, does not. Since these museums are for the public rather than for serious scholars, I think little harm is done by this kind of historical embellishment. What matters is the historical record, and that, not the bullhorn that Bush used at his visit to the wreckage of the World Trade Center or the jacket he wore when he threw out the first ball of the 2001 World Series, is what he will be judged by.