The wide open expanse of the forecourt and the limestone columns that frame the airy open foyer are much like a picture frame. Like that frame, it is what goes inside it that is important, and this frame seems pretty empty. The new George W. Bush Presidential Center opens this week at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, and the building itself is a telling reminder of the Bush presidency.
It is a building with two faces. The front, with the aforementioned open courtyard, is the library entrance, but the back presents a much more austere entrance. That is the George W. Bush Institute and it is the real legacy. It is a “policy institute,” or think tank which will actively seek to continue to influence lawmakers for generations to come. Ostensibly, the purpose of the institute is to focus on economic growth, human freedom and education reform, but the ironies are easy to spot.
The idea that the same “thinkers” who led us into a wrong-headed war, turned a budget surplus into a deficit and plunged our country into the biggest recession since the Great Depression are going to be cooking up more ideas is frightening. After all, these are the folks who came up with the big ideas of calling torture “enhanced interrogation” and set our public education system on a path to endless testing that indeed left all children behind.
Like the Bush presidency, the George Bush Presidential Center is a facade of style that masks the real purpose. Up front in the museum, history is rewritten, or at least sugar coated. The centerpiece of the space is a 17-foot chuck of the World Trade Center. Bush himself sees this as a way to draw attention to how safe he kept our country after 9/11 while conveniently forgetting that he was the president who ignored the memo which warned about Osama bin Laden and his future attacks on the US.
Visitors will be able to marvel at the bullhorn Bush used for his famous speech on the smoking rubble of the World Trade Center, arguably the pinnacle of his presidency. Exhibits include a replica of the Oval Office and even a case containing Saddam Hussein’s gun. Kids can sit at the table of the actual “situation room” from the White House where the blunders of the Iraq war were made. All in all it is a theme-park styled experience designed to spin the history of one of the worst presidents in U.S. history.
I will be curious to see the exhibit detailing how Bush threatened to veto federal LGBT hate crime protections. Or perhaps the footnote that as governor of Texas he fought to prevent repeal of 21.06 — the Texas law criminalizing “homosexual conduct.” And I guess the presidential campaign in 2004 when he advocated a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriages, will be tucked away near a water fountain somewhere.
Now I don’t want anyone to think that I feel the George Bush Presidential Center is totally without any benefit for our city. I feel pretty sure it will draw a good number of tourists and school groups, and it will make a fine addition to the glitzy architecture of Dallas. Our city has always valued style and often at the expense of substance and the new Bush Presidential Center fits that bill perfectly.
It is appropriate for a city which is intent on tearing down its historical buildings and replacing them with meaningless new ones. History has no purpose in Dallas unless it can be twisted to make a profit for the private sector. The new library fits that Dallas pattern well. It offers a promise of great public good that masks the real reason for its existence. It is a beautiful new frame for a picture we are all too familiar with.