The George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum may be the single most ironic, self-deceiving, quasi-religio-patriotic experience you'll ever witness in your life. It is Operation Iraqi Freedom meets the Rain Forest Cafe. I challenge you not to cry -- for all the wrong reasons.
But this is too much, too soon. Let me explain.
I belong to that crazed sect of Americans who not only visit presidential museums, but actually conduct research in them. If you can forgive that sin, then the rest may make some sense. Having just completed two days worth of research at the Clinton Library in Little Rock, I was set to begin another such stint in Dallas. Working on an article to update the thesis of my book on the modern presidency, I took to the campus of SMU to dig into the newly available archives from the Bush White House years.
I was immediately awestruck by the volume of the place. No, not the volume of books -- I mean volume as in sound. John Philip Souza on steroids comes to mind. This was Americana blasted in Dolby. Fine enough, if one prefers his political history given at an "eleven" decibel, but this was besides the point. The circumambulatory requirements of the museum whirled me around the War in Iraq, the War on Terror, Katrina, and other lesser baroque Bush unpardonables at the speed of obfuscation.
No weapons of mass destruction? Don't worry about that. Far too late and indifferent to the drowning masses in New Orleans? Let's discuss the numbers we did save, shall we? And, need we remind you, that 9/11 happened on our watch? I say "our" because the Bush Museum has a glitzed-up Hollywood-cum-family fun appeal that could only have been authored by Jerry Bruckheimer and Friends. Without reservation, the tour of the Bush years is unquestionably, if not somehow tragically, "well-done."
I couldn't help but choke up at the wild irony of the hardened, crow-eyed manliness of Bush helping a wounded warrior (oh, one will grow intimately aware of "warriors," "heroes," and "patriots," to last several lifetimes, here) push through a grueling competitive race. I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs, "Does anyone not see the irony in this?" I thought then of the over-used if not poorly remembered line from the Roman historian Tacitus: "They create a desert and call it 'Peace.'"
No. They call it the modern American presidential musuem and library. It also comes with a swell cafe and book store.
I forgive the Bush Team's positive presentation of its tenure. The Clinton folks don't exactly lead in with the Lewinsky thing, after all. Play to your strengths. Got it. I will even grudgingly accept the withholding of important administration documents in the short run -- even at the expense of advancing the public's knowledge for a few years. That kick-ass Karl Rove memo on his Senate talking points for Bush on education? Sorry friend, that is "redacted material" (because its "release would disclose confidential advice between the President and his advisors").
But, hey, I'm willing to forgive that too. Legacy is important. Presidential Studies Quarterly will have to wait to get that one.
The absence of politics, ugliness, fault, and simple human uncertainty -- all of these are sadly expected to be absent in these contemporary pharaonic tombs. And yet, to imagine away the three thousand unnecessary Iraqi War dead and the grim tale of forgotten weapons of mass destruction goes too far. I can part with a lot at the door of any presidential museum. My sense of reason and empathy are not up for grabs. They can't be drowned in a sea of photos with the Dalai Lama or newly discovered "green" politics plastered on exciting display sets.
Having recently been to Reagan's library in Simi Valley, I can report that even the Gipper didn't ask that.
The point is we are getting "good" at presidential history in this way. And judging by the many happy faces I saw all about me, I couldn't help but wonder at the majesty of all our updated Trajan's Columns and what they produce in us.
The talent to forget.
Saladin M. Ambar teaches American politcs at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He is the author of How Governors Built the Modern American Presidency (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012) and the forthcoming Malcolm X at Oxford Union: Racial Politics in a Global Era (Oxford University Press, February 2014). He is also convinced that the archivists are the very best thing to be found in presidential libraries.