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Last Updated: Tuesday, 6 February 2007, 07:40 GMT
Discord over Bush's lavish library plans
Kathryn Westcott
BBC News

Like many aspects of his presidency, George W Bush's plan for his presidential library has been mired in controversy from the start.

The choice of the Southern Methodist University has been dogged by controversy
SMU, an 11,000-student, private university, has been working on a bid for years
Bush representatives appear to be closing in on a post-presidency deal to build the reported half-a-billion dollar library, museum and policy institute at the Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas.

Libraries can play a leading role in shaping a president's legacy. But sometimes it is a legacy that people do not want to be associated with.

The SMU faculty has been forced to meet on a number of occasions in the past month to address strong protests by a number of academics and Methodist leaders to Mr Bush's plans.

Opposition

Two professors kick-started the debate last November by arguing that the library would associate the university with a president who took the country to war unnecessarily, violated international law and was guilty of "misleading the American public."

President George W Bush
President Bush's presidential library will far outstrip those of his predecessors
William McElvaney and Susan Johnson's arguments gained support among colleagues and their concerns have been debated in the national media.

The debate has centred on two main issues: openness and academic integrity.

Critics have argued that the Bush administration's papers - which will be housed in the library - are unlikely to undergo public examination because of the administration's approach to controlling the flow of information.

In 2001, the president signed an executive order that limits access to records in presidential library archives. This effectively undermines the 1978 Presidential Records Act that prescribes a public right of access to presidential papers.

Access can now be indefinitely postponed by a former president or his heirs, forcing historians and scholars to engage in lengthy law suits to challenge the decision.

Secrecy

James Hollifield, a political science professor at the university, said SMU would benefit from the institute because of the discussion, debate and research prompted by the eight years of documents from the Bush administration.

"We have to set politics aside and build this library and institute and give scholars and historians a chance to do their work," Mr Hollifield said.

The Ford presidential library is based at the University of Michigan
The Ford archives include 21 million pages of documents among other things
But Sidney Blumenthal, former Clinton aide and political journalist told the BBC News website that that "depends on whether you are talking about historians now or in 100 years' time."

"Secrecy is a fetish with the Bush administration," says Mr Blumenthal, author of How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime.

"Mr Bush has already shown that he wants to fight disclosure of his records. His administration has classified a tremendous amount of material as top secret - material that other administrations would not have classified in such a way."

Plans for Mr Bush's policy centre have also prompted suggestions that having a partisan think-tank on campus could jeopardise the university's academic independence.

The institution will not answer to the university but to the Bush Foundation, raising the spectre that only conservative scholars who promote Bush policies and burnish his reputation will be appointed.

SMU president R Gerald Turner has called concerns about the presidential library unfounded. He said the project would increase the university's visibility.

"Over time," Mr Turner said, "the political components of the library complex will fade and the historical aspects will ascend."

Past libraries

Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1937
Roosevelt believed a president's papers should become the property of the nation

Several of the 12 presidential libraries started life in discord. Duke University beat off Richard Nixon's advances to build his library there.

Plans to house the Kennedy library at Harvard were scuppered by residents concerned about an increase in traffic and tourism.

And plans for Ronald Reagan's library at Stanford were abandoned after protests.

Franklin D Roosevelt, who believed a president's papers should become the property of the nation, dedicated the first presidential library in 1940.

Things have changed a lot since his supporters raised $400,000 for a facility on the grounds of his home in Hyde Park, New York.

"Libraries have become grander and grander as presidents have more grandiose ideas of who they are," says presidential scholar Stephen Hess from George Washington University.

The president's representatives raise money to build the library and museum. The library component is then turned over to the National Archives to run.

In theory this is supposed to rid the libraries of political influence. In practice, commentators say, partisanship can still be seen in the public exhibits.

Image

"Presidential libraries are very much about how a president sees himself and how he wants to be remembered," says Mr Hess. The museum, in particular, is something that the former president and his supporters can control, he says.

Mr Bush is mounting his last campaign to rescue the reputation and legacy of his presidency
Sidney Blumenthal
President Ronald Reagan's museum has no mention of the Iran-Contra scandal. Similarly, Richard Nixon's library, which only recently became officially part of the presidential library system, has downplayed Watergate.

And, while Bill Clinton's library includes displays about the Monica Lewinsky affair and his impeachment trial, the exhibit is named "Politics of Persecution", which critics say dismisses it as a Republican vendetta.

The row at SMU sparked debates in the media about the nature of presidential libraries and raised questions about the whitewashing of history.

But Mr Hess believes time will resolve many of these questions; that libraries can change and become more open. He says that with time, the former president's supporters become less involved and they are eventually turned over to less partisan people.

He cites the example of Lyndon Johnson, whose library in its early days avoided the issue of the Vietnam War. Now, the library hosts exhibitions that, according to one former director, shows how it divided the country.

Judging by his present ratings, Mr Bush will probably leave office among the most unpopular of US presidents.

"Mr Bush is mounting his last campaign to rescue the reputation and legacy of his presidency," says Mr Blumenthal.

But Mr Hess says there is a limit to how much a library can restore a former leader's reputation.

"A president can't change history in that way," says Mr Hess.


SEE ALSO
Clinton library open for business
18 Nov 04 |  Americas
Restoring Jefferson's reputation
21 Aug 06 |  Magazine

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