Reading between the lines in the George W. Bush Presidential Library

At a cost of $250 million dollars, the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum is not the most expensive monument of its kind. But why is such a sycophantic memorial needed at all, unless its purpose is to vindicate a man whose policies are reviled?

Picture this and think of Texas:

“I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is George W. Bush, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’”

There are four big questions surrounding George W. Bush’s presidency. How effective and how just were his counterterrorism policies? What is the long-term impact of his fiscal policies? Did federal education standards actually improve the nation’s schools? What was the result of engaging in pre-emptive wars? These are not just questions for historians to debate. They are questions that impact the lives of everyday people both in the USA and in many countries outside.

Bush-LibraryThe George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum was officially dedicated on 25 April 2013 on the campus of Southern Methodist University in a ceremony attended by President Obama and four ex-presidents. For a whole day the partisan rancor that marked George Bush’s tenure was set aside, despite President Obama having previously asserted that “The failed policies of George W. Bush…” wiped away a budget surplus and “squandered the legacy” of bipartisan foreign policy. He put two wars “on a credit card”, led the country away “from our values” and “crashed the economy.”

The $250 million complex houses the 13th official presidential library. The exhibits use modern gadgetry and 25 different films and interactive videos. No President creates a museum overflowing with self-criticism and this one is no exception. It does not ignore controversies such as the weapons of mass destruction that were never found in Iraq, but it does not dwell on them either. In the Iraq display it points out that, “No stockpiles of WMD were found.” But then it adds by way of self-serving justification, “Post-invasion inspections confirmed that Saddam Hussein had the capacity to resume production of WMD.”

BushesThere is a statue of Bush Jr. standing slightly forward of (some might say in the shadow of) Bush Sr. There is a section devoted to Laura Bush’s travels, a video by his daughters and even statues of the family dogs and cat. Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s Secretary of State, and his two chiefs of staff all narrate videos. But conspicuous by their absence are former Vice-President Dick Cheney, former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, and Karl Rove, the president’s political strategist, who only make cameo appearances in news footage.

The centerpiece of the Bush library is an interactive exhibit known as “Decision Points Theater”. Against footage of breaking news and short videos of “advice” from actors posing as officials and military top brass, visitors use touch screens to make their own decisions on the crises that defined the Bush era. The ex-President then pops up on a screen to justify the steps he took on the invasion of Iraq, the subsequent troop surge, Hurricane Katrina and the financial crisis.

Bush wrote in his 2010 memoir that “it’s too early to say how most of my decisions will turn out… Whatever the verdict on my presidency, I’m comfortable with the fact that I won’t be around to hear it.” Yet, he left office as one of the most unpopular presidents in recent history. Critics say Bush invaded Iraq on false pretenses, mismanaged the occupation and thereby weakened America’s global power and moral standing. The aftermath of Katrina in 2005 is the nadir of how not to handle natural disasters. And Bush’s failure to spot an onrushing financial meltdown led to the greatest recession since the 1930s.

Former Bush aides hope the opening of the library will mark the first step in his rehabilitation. “Those eight years of the Bush presidency were full of shocks,” said one of Bush’s most trusted senior aides. “As time passes, as emotions begin to even out after a very difficult and consequential time, people take a much more objective look.” Sounds like they’re looking for a whitewash. History’s verdict is likely to be more severe:

“Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

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