Librarian-in-Chief

The George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum opened for business at the end of last week, in a dedication ceremony that included speeches by our three other living former U.S. presidents and the current one, all of whom were naturally on their best behavior.

In the broader media, this momentous event was used as an opportunity—as these things are—to revisit the presidency, and reflect upon the so-called “legacy,” of our 43rd chief executive four years after his departure from Washington, D.C.

This national conversation about the meaning of President Bush and his new library encompassed an impressive array of concerns—from the presidency itself to the nature of presidential library funding to the striking magnanimity with which all of Bush’s fellow ex-presidents spoke of him in his hour of glory—but there was a most essential question that remained largely, regrettably unexamined.

Why should the American president get his own library and museum in the first place?

President Bill Clinton, in his remarks, drew chuckles when he cheekily observed that the ceremony marked “the latest, grandest example of the eternal struggle of former presidents to rewrite history.”

If only that were all that is wrong with them.  The bigger picture is far more troubling and problematic.

A presidential library and museum is, at its core, an exercise in vanity.  Regardless of the particular chief executive under consideration, the institute bearing his name will inevitably approach his presidency in a sympathetic, biased manner, underlining his successes and glossing over (if not outright ignoring) his flaws, faults and failures.  What possible incentive does such a place have to do otherwise?

Clinton’s museum, unable to credibly omit his 1998 impeachment completely, presents the Lewinsky affair strictly under the heading, “politics of persecution.”  The Ronald Reagan Library barely mentioned the Iran-Contra episode until a 2011 renovation—two decades after the building’s original dedication.  At the Richard Nixon Library, things got so bad vis-à-vis Watergate that Congress was compelled to intervene, passing legislation that transferred control of the museum’s contents to the National Archives.

This is what happens when you erect a monument to a human being—and what is worse, a human being who is still alive and personally involved in the monument’s creation.  It is history as propaganda, in its purest, baldest form.

What we should realize, however, is that even if presidential museums could be made to be objective about their subjects, they would still be a rotten idea.

What would it mean, we might ask, to have an institution dedicated to chronicling the life and times of George W. Bush in 2013?  What would a sober, objective set of exhibits in such a time and place look like?  How might it present the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?  What conclusions might it draw?  How would it assess the Bush presidency with respect to those of Bush’s predecessors?

On the prospect of arriving at definitive answers to these queries, I humbly ask:  Isn’t it a bit soon?

There is an old story that when asked in 1972 to assess the impact of the French Revolution of 1789, Russian Premier Zhou Enlai remarked that it was “too early to say.”  Although this exchange turned out to be a case of mistaken translation (Enlai was actually referring to the Parisian unrest of 1968), the underlying point is nonetheless true.

To study history is to understand that it can only be viewed in the long term, and that the past is ever subject to change based on the present.  Any museum that presumes to present history so recent that it can barely be called history would be subject to constant revision and refinement, begging the question of whether such a place could rightly be called a museum.

What would remain is the individual who sat in the Oval Office during the period when the contested events occurred, whose life is only interesting in the context of those very events.  In that way, presidents’ long-term reputations are hostage to fortune, as dependent upon the actions of their successors as by their own.

So we return to my earlier question:  Do these people deserve a museum at all?  Does the mere fact of having been president warrant immortalization of this sort?  And even if it did, might we consider resisting the urge all the same?

We might.

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