When your presidential shrine opens you’ll get to pick which of your quotes you want writ large on it. Here’s one George W. Bush picked for his:
“We believe in open societies ordered by moral conviction. We believe in private markets, humanized by compassionate government. We believe in economies that reward effort, communities that protect the weak, and the duty of nations to respect the dignity and the rights of all.”
The words are on the limestone wall at the entrance to the Bush Institute at his library and museum complex, which will be dedicated Thursday at Southern Methodist University. President Barack Obama and the four living ex-presidents (Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and George W.) are scheduled to attend.
The Bush quote on the wall is from a speech at London’s Whitehall Palace on Nov. 19, 2003. That day, “we” was a reference to Brits and Americans. At the George W. Bush Presidential Center, which includes the library, museum and institute, Bush and those close to him are the “we” through whose eyes his presidency is portrayed.
“You will see an exhibit planned by the former president and his foundation,” said Sharon Fawcett, who has not seen this one but knows as much as anybody about presidential libraries. Until her 2011 retirement, Fawcett (a University of Texas grad) was the National Archives and Records Administration’s assistant archivist for presidential libraries.
On opening day (May 1 for the public ) what visitors will see “is very much an artifact of his presidency,” she said.
Clay Bauske, curator at the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence, Mo., agreed, noting that “when presidential libraries first open the president is generally still alive and all of his associates are still alive.”
“The exhibits when the libraries first open are generally funded by the foundations which are set up by the friends of the former president,” said Bauske. “So I think there is a real pressure to spin a favorable interpretation on the exhibits. That doesn’t mean they need to be inaccurate, but you might pick and choose to put the president in a favorable light.”
Longtime Bush adviser Karen Hughes insists that’s not what’s going on at the newest of the nation’s 13 presidential libraries, where, she said, visitors will see “an effort to display what happened and why (Bush) made the decisions he made, the good and the bad.”
“It’s a presentation of why he did what he did,” she said, challenging the notion that it’s a defense of his presidency. “It’s a presentation of the facts and the situations and the principles that President Bush applied to those facts and situations.”
“The tone is, you decide,” Hughes said. “Here is how (Bush) approached it, why (he) did the things (he) did. You make your own decision.”
In the Decision Points Theater, videos by former White House Chiefs of Staff Andy Card and Josh Bolten offer information about the troop surge in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina and the 2008 financial crisis. Based on that input, visitors will decide a course of action.
“At the end,” Hughes said, “President Bush comes on and says what he did and why.”
Hughes also noted that Bush insisted that a display of letters from the military include some that are critical of his decisions.
Overall, the museum is intended to be a very hands-on experience, including a 17-foot, two-ton piece of steel from the World Trade Center. Hughes said museum officials made sure “visitors can touch it and feel the twisted steel.”
While denying the notion of the library as a defense of the Bush presidency, Hughes is not shy about mounting that defense.
“After 2008 the president came home and for the next two years President Obama blamed him for everything and nobody defended him,” she said, adding that thanks to Bush’s efforts Obama “inherited a far better country and situation than he would have otherwise.”
Bush long has said he’ll let history decide his legacy. Experts say that kind of evolution also happens at presidential museums as they morph toward more analytical views with historical perspective of an administration.
“You get a very different feel if you go into libraries at difference stages in their life cycle, when the president is living and when the president is gone,” Fawcett said.
The nation’s first presidential library — FDR’s in Hyde Park, N.Y., which opened June 30, 1941, while he was in office — reopens June 30 after major renovations. Director Lynn Bassanese says a major feature at the retooled facility will be 10 interactive “confront the issues” exhibits about major decisions faced by FDR.
“We’ll allow visitors to explore archival materials, documents and photographs, and there are historical insights to these particular subjects that provide critical perspective,” she said, noting that the historical perspectives will include pro and con.
Three of the issues involve FDR and the Holocaust, a subject that’s had close scrutiny over the years, including from people who believe he could have done more about it at the time. Until seven years ago, the library had no exhibit about the topic. And until the current renovation, the only mention was in a laminated flipbook, Bassanese said.
The previous lack of a Holocaust exhibit had more to do with budgets than anything else, she said.
In Independence, the Truman Library initially had no exhibit about his decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan — perhaps the most controversial decision of his presidency. Bauske said lack of funds — not any pressure from Truman or associates — was the reason there was no such exhibit. One was added during a 2001 renovation. It asks visitors — using the context of the time at which Truman made the decision — to pass judgment on it. There now are 60 books of handwritten comments from visitors.
“We were very fortunate when we did the renovation that a significant amount of time had passed and we felt absolutely no restrictions on how we interpreted the Truman presidency,” Bauske said. “There was no pressure at all from the family or anyone else and so we were able to do a more measured look at it.”
Fawcett believes the new Bush library will evolve in time as the others have.
“There hasn’t been a lot of time to gain historical perspective. There is a lot of political perspective. There are people who absolutely believe in everything George W. Bush did and there are people who believe his presidency was very controversial,” Fawcett said. “But that’s true for every president who left office. The same could be said about Bill Clinton.”
One difference (among many) between Clinton and Bush is this: It’s possible, if it were legal, that Clinton, with approval ratings in the mid-60s when he left office in 2001, could have won a third term. When Bush’s presidency ended, amid the most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression, CBS reported this: “President Bush will leave office as one of the most unpopular departing presidents in history, according to a new CBS News/New York Times poll showing Mr. Bush’s final approval rating at 22 percent.”
So how do presidential libraries deal with presidents who ended on a low note? To check it out, I went to the libraries of the two elected presidents voted out of office during my lifetime. At the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum in Atlanta, his 1980 loss to Ronald Reagan is handled fairly straightforwardly. A display mentions Democratic Party division caused by Ted Kennedy’s aggressive challenge of Carter for the nomination. And there’s this about the general election:
“Reagan promised better times, with massive tax cuts, increased spending, an end to the Department of Energy, and relaxed environmental protections. (Third-party candidate John) Anderson drew voters away from both candidates. And Jimmy Carter lost.”
At the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum in College Station a display about his 1992 loss to Clinton says, “Presidential campaigns, like footballs, can take crazy bounces. In 1991, President George Bush scored one of the highest approval ratings in history — 91 percent.
“However, a mild recession slowed business through the end of 1991 and into the first few months of 1992, resulting in a rash of corporate downsizing and layoffs. Bush’s opponents, led by Democratic challenger Bill Clinton of Arkansas, exploited the theme that America’s economy was stalled,” visitors are told.
They’re also told that Bush predicted the economy would rebound and “He was correct.” But under the word “Fate,” the display notes that third-party candidate Ross Perot took votes, “many from the Bush/Quayle ticket.”
“With most of the media supporting the Clinton negative economic theme, the public’s perception was that the country was stuck in an economic downturn and that a change in the top office was needed,” the display says.
The narrator on an accompanying video says, “Going into the 1992 election, President Bush had every reason to feel confident. His poll numbers were extremely high after the victory in the Gulf and by all standards his presidency had been a resounding success.” The video includes a woman, identified only as “Voter,” who says Bush “seems like a really nice person. I just don’t think that he’s really in touch with what’s going on.”
The new Bush Library has no plans to address poll numbers, good or bad, according to Hughes.
From her experienced vantage point, Fawcett believes it takes time until a presidential library “achieves more balance in terms of public history.”
“Good public history gives you a balance of different points of view,” she said. “It allows the visitor to the museum to look at the way different historians have looked at an issue.”
In years to come, the Bush Library’s handling of Iraq, Afghanistan and other key decisions of his presidency will evolve, Fawcett said, but for now, “It’s the president’s library. It’s a memoir. … You have to wait a number of years before we understand the sum total of the events and what they led to and what they didn’t lead to. You can’t measure success right off the bat. We’re still right off the bat.”
If you go
When: The library opens to the public May 1.
Where: 2943 SMU Blvd., Dallas. SMU Boulevard exit from U.S. 75 (North Central Expressway).
Hours: Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sunday, Noon-5 p.m.
Admission: Adult, $16; Senior, $13; Youth (13-17), $14; Youth (5-12), $10; College student, $13.
Advance ticket purchase: osp.osmsinc.com/GeorgeWBushLibrary/
Parking: $7 (credit card only). $5 at nearby Moody Parking Garage.
Additional information: bushcenter.org/plan-your-visit/visit-museum; 855 577-4300
Former President George W. Bush and former first lady Laura Bush talk about the new library and other topics in today’s Parade magazine.