The past was forgotten for a few polite hours this week at the new George W. Bush presidential museum and library at Southern Methodist University (SMU). Despite the celebratory good time, Jon Ward reported for Huffington Post the on-going effort to burnish the George W. reputation in time for the opening of the library wasn't going all that well.
Library? Are there books in this "library"?
Human shortcomings being what they are, most modern presidents have needed to blue pencil a paragraph or two for the historical record. As Ward suggests, however, the library of Bush the younger may need dark and wide markers and more pictures than prose -- well, the markers at least. The creativity has started early at W's museum and policy center. But any written effort to be worthy of the SMU intellectual reputation will need to handle those pestiferous things called facts.
Bush has snagged an interesting and capable man for his research director, Former Ambassador James Glassman, and little time has been wasted getting at least one favorable book on the shelves conveniently available as friends gathered for the dedication.
All the living presidents turned out; you just can't count on the others no matter how lavish the Texas spread. As noted below, the absence of the Gipper is a void made larger with each falsely-Reaganesque Tea Party candidate.
Presidential libraries receive far more private than public money, and that's also good, for the long-term unemployed and families missing a loved one in the Iraqi misadventure have already paid dearly. It is somewhat ironic that even the construction of the $250 million dollar complex at SMU involved controversy. SMU is located in a fashionable residential section of Dallas with little open space -- unlike competing schools Baylor, Texas Tech and to everyone's surprise, little University of Dallas located on far more attractive rolling terrain than its not well-endowed physical plant put in a formidable bid. UD is especially popular in conservative Catholic circles, and though tiny, possessing some bright thinkers and notable scholars. Good try, smarty-pants Catholics, but Laura's sorority sisters at SMU got the nod. Ironically because of SMU's greater density this means using eminent domain to clear non-blighted property -- something the Bush administration argued strongly and appropriately against among its rightward, libertarian followers.
One suspects that the realities of the W presidency will always be battling those friends of the ranch who will need to keep those uncooperative fact doggies tied securely in obscurity back behind the feedbin. Given the national report that rather sadly, but thoroughly reveals the Bush administration reliance upon torture post-9/11, there will be ample grist if not gristle to go around on the "War on Terror."
The dedicatory event, however airbrushed, was a swell affair for the swells, but not even a fine bubbly was sufficient to allay the anxieties of the jobless "recovery," if moving from do not resuscitate to critical merits the word. Unfortunately for Republican partisans, the Reagan presidency remains the only light still shining on their rhetorical hill, and the dear late president's Alzheimer's seems to have been unexplainably, if selectively, contagious.
It is invidious to compare fathers and sons, and the senior Bush whose reputation for decency was learned from his own father, Senator Prescott Bush, would be the first to disclaim the comparison. However, not even the worst memory can fail to acknowledge that Papa Bush, now sadly weakened and in wheel chair deserves credit for assisting Kuwait repel an actual Iraqi invasion, as distinct from a Bradley vehicle road trip hunting for fictitious WMD. George senior also had his problems with "the vision thing" (by his own self-admission), the tax thing (by his honesty for the need for revenue notwithstanding those lips of his that too many remembered, darn it, made an imprudent promise at the convention), and the reelection thing (having lost the "big mo" to another lone star circus act known as Ross Perot).
First Lady Barbara Bush deployed her usual winning ways and candor to take the helium out of W's suggestion that soon it would be Jeb's turn. Mrs. Bush's declaration that the nation has had enough Bushes was the welcome equivalent of the first GW's democratically-important return to Mount Vernon after two terms. Oh yes, Jeb is the smart one and avoids whatever it is that causes W to start and end sentences without verbs and other syntactical disorder, but enough already.
True to his diplomatic potential, President Obama kindly observed that to know W is to like him. That was a nice touch and so unlike the Tea Party who sees the incumbent president as the embodiment of everything wrong with, well, everything. It will be interesting to see how W's presidential mausoleum treats these tea folks. Nothing short of Grover Norquist's pledge satisfies them, of course, but hopefully, their tendency to substitute the negative for the positive (Cruz for Lugar, for example), will be appreciated by their fellow party members for what it is: a threat to their own aspirations for electoral gain given an unusually large contingent of D-Senators calling it quits.
Quitting? Reagan, for whom I served as legal counsel, believed in voice more than exit. Reagan came to Washington with a Heritage Foundation full of ideas and not just the "trickle down" melody that Romney, and W before him, sang incessantly. Reagan's military spending was legion and whatever the Laffer curve taught him, Reagan knew that revenues didn't fully cover a drop in rates. Reagan represented -- authentically in words if not always program, "family, neighborhood, work, peace, and freedom."
The problem for the GOP is that its tax fixation leaves millions of families in communities with collapsing infrastructure, expensive and underperforming schools, and had GOP leadership had its way, without basic medical care. Even now the Republicans remain more a source of confusion than confidence by its insistent daydreaming about repealing Obamacare. Say what you want about Reagan's conservatism and blindness toward the needs of the poor, it was Reagan who inspired legions of academics and other policy thinkers to descend on Washington with vouchers, regulatory competition, and other ways of experimenting to get better governmental outcomes even as Reagan by philosophy prayed regularly that the country he loved would not be saddled, as he put it, "with getting the government we pay for."
Reagan left the Democratic party when it was fat and lazy, resting on the fading memories of FDR and the controversial, and debatable, "give 'em hell" military indecisiveness of Harry Truman. Reagan and GHWB possessed more direct and achievable foreign affairs objectives, and they had the talent to snare it. Unlike some of my Democratic friends, scholars of foreign policy give credit for the capabilities and intelligence of George Shultz and Jim Baker and Colin Powell.
Not being certain what lessons the new Bush Center will reveal when the last of "the brie has been et.," but here's a nostrum worth pondering: Every political party in power too long grows complacent, and if that complacency isn't addressed head on, the party is turned out until it thinks of new ways to turn around what the other guy says is impossible or intractable. It was left to Bill Clinton to out-Republican the Republicans and attach work requirements to welfare and not engage in deficit make-believe. And in his "retirement," Clinton is exploding with fascinating theories to make supply chains and technology not only help the less fortunate, but also (as both parties affirm but often fail to follow through) free us from fossil fuels that link us either to the globe's most tyrannical dictators or threaten through environmental insanity or ignorance to destroy the globe itself.
All this prompts this Obama-supporting-Republican-turned- Independent to lend a word of caution to my "newer" friends back among the Democrats -- full disclosure: my formative political years were strongly influenced by my father's Democratic Party activity and the idealism and ethic of service and equality embedded in John, Robert and Ted Kennedy to whom he dedicated many hours. These noble sentiments largely explain the president's popularity among the young and his reelection among wider ethnic and demographic constituencies. But eloquence is one thing, performance another, and it is important for the president's party not to let the disarray among the ranks of the right-wing mislead.
Our rhetorically gifted incumbent seems to have some difficulty putting the ball across the goal line. This "red zone" failure by the blue team if I can mix a football metaphor into the political stew is not necessarily Obama's alone -- after all, governing is a team sport. It is not completely clear that the president has been able to draft the team he needs. The president was right to wash his disappointment in the effort to adopt some meaningful gun control in the anguished tears of the parents of young children first needlessly deprived of life and then in death sacrificed to the raw appetite for power of the gun lobby. Another round is hinted, but is someone helping the president avoid legislative loss? The president got valuable and intelligent support and a smartly drafted legislative vehicle courtesy of the hard work of Senator Diane Feinstein, but where was the majority leader and whip with the kind of NRA-refutation that counts -- on the Senate and House floors in the vote cast?
The president has made some excellent second term choices. Secretary Kerry clearly grasps what needs immediate attention (and his travel destinations to the Middle East reveal as much). Yet Kerry needs timely and detailed diplomatic infrastructure to be placed nimbly and thoroughly to make his work matter. It is, after all, the end of April, and putting the Secretary in the awkward position of saying, as he was forced to on the Hill this week, that he is still awaiting an adequate briefing on everything from the implementation of the internal criticisms that followed the murder of Ambassador Chris Stevens to the more prosaic economic incentive and good will possibilities in the visa waiver program, is frankly rather embarrassing. What is even more worrisome is that, outwardly at least, that which Chris Stevens died for -- religious freedom, gender equality, expanded economic opportunity for the U.S. in north Africa, and the fullness of democracy under a rule of law seems nowhere in sight.
Presidential libraries prompt leaders to contemplate their place in history. It was good Obama didn't stay long, he is much needed in the present. The "to do" list is long and important well beyond the "no brainer" of responsible limits on guns and ammo, whether it be immigration, the complexity and thinly disguised unfairness of the tax code, renewable energy and climate change, meaningful improvement in education, as well as the assistance and cultivation of more securely democratic nations abroad.
The word "former" will accompany his title faster than he knows, and as all the "formers" discover, no presidential library substitutes for missed opportunity.