The Bush library: who needs it?

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George W. Bush has selected Southern Methodist University in Dallas to maintain and extend his political legacy. In addition to the most expensive presidential library in history, the Bushites plan to add a “think tank,” sometimes referred to as the “Institute for Democracy,” to continue doing what they have been doing to America.

The outcry began with a modest and extremely civilized commentary in the campus newspaper last November. It has risen to a nationwide roar that includes leading Methodists, SMU faculty members, recognized historians, other academics and the public at large. A web page dedicated to the issue, www.protectsmu.org, claims over 10,000 signatures objecting to the “prospect of the George W. Bush library, museum, and think tank being established at Southern Methodist University.” Residents of the area began petitioning, and students on campus started a petition of their own.

The first objections were of a moral nature. The Rev. William K. McElvaney, professor emeritus of preaching and worship, and Dr. Susanne Johnson, associate professor of Christian education at SMU’s Perkins School of Theology, wrote in the campus newspaper on Nov. 10: “Do we want SMU to benefit financially from a legacy of massive violence, destruction and death brought about by the Bush presidency in dismissal of broad international opinion? 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? Given the secrecy of the Bush administration and its virtual refusal to engage with those holding contrary opinions, what confidence could be had in the selection of presidential papers made available to the library?”

Recently, McElvaney told the World, “Former students have written in, ‘What this administration has done is totally contrary to what we learned at SMU.’ Methodists have a strong antiwar position. It certainly doesn’t fit within our Methodist principles. And the same thing certainly can be true when you talk about habeas corpus and torture. Let’s face it, torture is not on the list of Methodist virtues!”

When he co-authored the original objections, McElvaney did not even know that the Bush representatives were insisting on attaching a think tank to the library and museum proposals. He said, “SMU originally proposed a school of public service, as they have at the Clinton library in Little Rock. But the Bush representatives replied with their desire for a think tank or institute.” He added, “The library would be less damaging than the institute; that’s the most positive thing I could say about it.”

As faculty members began to add their objections, the SMU administration held a special closed-door meeting in December. McElvaney says that faculty members then found out, for the first time, that Bush planned more than a library and museum. He said, “We didn’t know about the institute until the faculty meeting on Dec. 20.” Afterward, participants told reporters some of the faculty concerns.

Apparently, the proposed “policy institute” would not be run by the university, but by a Bush foundation. Consequently, the university would have little say-so about what the institute might do or say. Other faculty members raised issues of openness in the adoption process. One professor said that she wasn’t sure the university would be able to recruit a diverse student body if it were associated with Bush policies. Others wondered if traditional SMU supporters would continue to donate funds if Bush-type ideas were being promulgated from the campus. One faculty member described the meeting itself as “intimidating.”

McElvaney told me, “I think it’s fair to say that there were statements made that certainly were received as intimidating. And it’s fair to say that there is a palpable fear on the part of the faculty to speak out on this if they don’t have tenure.”

By early February, Bush’s mania for secrecy had become a big part of the public discussion. Major historians and archivists argue that the Bush presidency has been the most aggressively secretive in history. Bush’s Executive Order 13233 smothers access to presidential records. The experts are pressuring the university to refuse the Bush plans with hopes of pressuring Bush to relax his unprecedented secrecy moves.

On the other side of the argument, university administrators and others claim that the $500 million library would be an economic asset to the university and to the city of Dallas. After the news story began breaking, more people joined the fight. Deborah Lewis of nearby Garland wrote: “It seems that everyone who defends the idea of locating the Bush library at SMU uses the justification that it will bring visitors and money to Dallas. Using that logic, I guess we should be pleased that the Kennedy assassination happened in Dallas!”

Will the protests continue to grow? McElvaney said, “It’s going to continue at a pretty strong pace.”

People are writing to President Turner, Southern Methodist University, Dallas TX 75275. They can also sign online petitions.

If the Bushites win out, they will employ the reputations of Southern Methodist University and the city of Dallas to extend Bush ideology into the indefinite future.

Who wants that?

Jim Lane (flittle7 @ yahoo.com) is a labor activist in North Texas.