Dispatch July 2009

Mission Accomplished (And This Time It's True)

In the quest to build his presidential library, Bush has overcome political, legal, religious, and financial obstacles—and is succeeding where Reagan, Nixon, and JFK failed.

The groundbreaking at Southern Methodist University for George W. Bush's presidential library next year should be celebrated with a "Mission Accomplished" banner. The team responsible for spearheading the library has navigated a variety of obstacles—political, legal, religious, financial—and now seems poised to declare victory.

From the archives:

The George W. Bush Presidential Library (January/February 2006)
An unauthorized preview, with never-before -seen drawings of the interior. A cartoon by Cullen Murphy and Edward Sorel

First came some SMU professors who took exception to the idea of welcoming a conservative think tank, which is a key component of the Bush library plan. There’s no precedent, the liberal professors argued, for an "academically-credible" university hosting a "partisan institute." And, in a campus newspaper op-ed, two professors went further, saying they didn’t want their university associated with "a legacy of massive violence, destruction, and death brought about by the Bush presidency."

This kind of protest is library politics as usual. These monuments to a president’s posterity are easy targets for an administration's critics, and ideologically opposed faculty are famous for crying NIMBY. “Duke objected to the Nixon library, Stanford objected to the Reagan library, and Harvard didn't want the Kennedy library on its campus—it wanted the school but not the library,” notes James “Skip” Rutherford, who led Bill Clinton’s presidential library project.

Bush is succeeding where Nixon, Reagan, and JFK failed. SMU officials, led by president R. Gerald Turner, assuaged faculty concerns by promising to maintain a “firewall” between the Bush think tank and the university: the Bush institute, according to a set of legal agreements, "will not be permitted to identify itself or its views with SMU." Mark Langdale, the head of the George W. Bush Foundation, which is responsible for developing and operating the library and institute, also has tried to tamp down tensions. An important function of the institute, he has said, is to engage in “dialogue” with those who disagree with Bush and his policies. Not wanting to be characterized as liberal partisans afraid of talking with their conservative counterparts, the SMU faculty opponents have adopted a more conciliatory approach.

Next, the library faced a legal challenge. Two University Park homeowners sued SMU alleging it defrauded them when it bought out their condo complex to make way for the library. The case has been winding its way through the state court system in Texas since 2005 . The suit was set to go to trial in the fall and, at one point, it even looked as though Bush himself might have to testify. But just recently the legal row abruptly ended in a settlement, as SMU was willing to cough up an estimated $2 million-plus to avoid a possible delay for the library.

Then there were the religious objections. When Bush won SMU’s approval for his library and institute in February 2008, some of his opponents sought to appeal to a higher power. Citing Bush's allegedly unchurchly policies of preemptive war in Iraq and his use of torture on detainees, Bush’s fellow Methodists petitioned the South Central Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church—which has authority over SMU—to revoke his lease. The petition garnered more than 11,000 signatures, including those of 28 Methodist bishops. Fortunately for Bush, it wasn't enough. Last July, members of the church jurisdiction voted 158-118 in favor of approving the 99-year lease.

Politics, law, religion – what else could stand in Bush’s way? How about the tanking economy? Just as Bush was about to leave Washington and turn his attention to planning his library, the worst recession in decades hit. Terrible timing for Bush, says Rutherford, who notes, "The main year you raise money is the first year after you leave the White House.” Political contributions are down 26 percent from this time last cycle, according to the Federal Election Commission, and charitable giving dipped 2 percent in 2008, the largest decline in half a century, according to the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. But Bush has devoted himself to the task, calling or meeting with fundraisers personally to ask for large donations. And his foundation, amazingly, is on track to meet its goal of raising $300 million.

As the funds continue to come in, the rules governing Bush’s foundation could soon change. Since 1955, presidential library foundations have enjoyed an advantage over political campaigns, in that they can accept donations of any size, and do not have to turn away checks from wealthy foreigners or foreign governments. Moreover, foundations don't have to publicly report where their donations are coming from (unless, of course, the wife of the former president is being confirmed by the Senate for a Cabinet position). But last January, as the incoming Obama administration was jawboning about greater transparency, the House overwhelmingly passed the Presidential Library Donation Reform Act, which would make public donations of more than $200 to a presidential library foundation. The bill is currently stalled in the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, where staffers say it'll come up "soon." If these new rules were to become law, it’s not clear how, if at all, they’d affect Bush’s fundraising results.

For all this, Langdale remains confident that the George W. Bush Presidential Center will open on time in 2013. Then the library will face just one last hurdle: turning around Bush’s 61 percent disapproval rating.

Presented by

Sean J. Miller writes for The Hotline, National Journal, and the Christian Science Monitor.

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