The Great Bush Library Debate

I love a good fight. It’s nice to see SMU having one.

Southern Methodist University is growing up. It has raised millions of dollars, admissions standards, and, now, a ruckus. All three are good signs of the university’s health.

I see the complaints of some faculty members of the Bush Library in a positive light. A university is about free inquiry and robust debate. The more, the better.

This is a far cry from only a few years ago when a conservative student organization held an anti-affirmative action bake sale on campus. The group was selling cookies to white students at higher prices than to black students in order to make a point. But the demonstration was considered too politically incorrect for the delicate sensitivities of SMU students, and the administration shut it down. The backlash that resulted from this squashing of free speech was a black eye on SMU, its students, and its faculty.

Nobody need be delicate in debating the Bush Library. It’s a prize big enough to warrant an old-fashioned intellectual fistfight.

The concerns of the faculty, such as they are, are twofold. Number one: should SMU benefit from a president whose legacy is one of “massive violence, destruction, and death”? (This is the oft-used quote from the op-ed in the Daily Campus.) And number two, near as I can tell: will the library become a haven for conservative thinkers, akin to the Hoover Institution at Stanford?

These questions are worth considering. Did the University of Texas endorse the policies of Lyndon Johnson by hosting his library? Should it have benefited financially from his legacy of massive violence, destruction, and death? Or has the University of Texas benefited instead from three decades of active scholarship, historical inquiry, conferences of foreign policy experts, and other activities that have been attracted to Austin because of the LBJ Library? If the professors think George W. Bush’s legacy is destruction, isn’t a Bush Library precisely the place to examine it?

But, the complainants argue, the Bush Library foundation would never allow such open discussion. Perhaps not. An institution operating on behalf of a living ex-president can be expected to exercise a certain diffidence regarding its namesake. But a presidential library isn’t built for the present generation. It is not our present ethical sensibilities but history that transcends partisan politics.

As for the idea of the library becoming a think tank for conservatives, nothing would delight me more. We can forgive those faculty who presume this means the library might become an ideological encampment. They are apparently under the delusion that conservatives are like themselves—in other words, that they think in lock step. Mr. Bush himself might be the one to set them straight.

I’d love to see conservatives such as Heather McDonald (who calls Bush a “neo-Wilsonian absolutist”) and Bruce Bartlett (author of Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy) discussing the Bush presidency.

To be sure, not all of the faculty, not even a large percentage of it, subscribe to the position taken by a few. Most of the questions raised have been directed at the role of the library in the general functioning of the university. Those questions are pertinent. The thoughtfulness behind them displays a self-assuredness and self-awareness that befits the faculty of a great university.

SMU is indeed growing up. The debate over the Bush Library is only a sign. The building of the Bush Library will be a hallmark.