All presidential libraries are built around a paradox. They are monuments to what the former president and his loyalists would have us remember and blank slates about what they would have us forget.
That paradox is especially pronounced in the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum that opened Thursday in Dallas on the campus of Southern Methodist University. The library presents the 43rd president as the decider, a man who made excruciating choices in a time of grave threat and crisis. But the challenge for America is to resist this spun version and remember that Bushs most consequential and worst choices were ones that he did not have to make, namely going to war in Iraq and draining the nations coffers with wars and hugely expensive but ineffective tax cuts.
The former president emerged from self-imposed political exile to open his library in the company of President Obama and the three other living ex-presidents, his father, George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Obama thanked his predecessor for his service, courage, humor and love of country. To know the man is to like the man, Obama said. He is a good man.
Restoring an image
The library opening begins an effort to recast a reputation scarred by two wars, Hurricane Katrina and economic collapse. The occasion was preceded by a cover story in Parade Magazine and several carefully arranged TV interviews, including two sitdowns with Fox News.
A CNN poll released this week shows that time is softening opinions about Bush. Fifty five percent of those surveyed think his presidency was a failure, but thats down 13 percent from a poll in January 2009. Opinion, however, is polarized. Eight in ten Republicans rate Bushs presidency a success while nearly nine in 10 Democrats say it was a failure.
Friendly interviews, diplomatic praise from the current and former Democratic presidents and the multimedia displays of the library cannot blur memories of the Bush years that are painfully keen. For the political health of the nation, they should remain so. The deceptions and incompetence of that era must be an enduring lesson about what can go wrong when the nation allows it principles to be bent and broken in a time of crisis and fear.
Obama and Bush
Indeed one failing of Obamas presidency has been his unwillingness to examine the darkest activities of the Bush years. After his election, Obama rejected calls for an investigation into torture and other potentially illegal counterterrorism programs condoned at the highest levels of the Bush administration.
In some respects, Obama has even adopted a Bush-style disregard for openness and the law. The president has reneged on his pledge to close the military prison at Guantanamo where terrorist suspects have been held for up to 11 years without trial. As Obama spoke Thursday, 94 of the prisons 166 inmates were on hunger strike over their prolonged detention. Seventeen of them are being force fed through a nasal tube. Meanwhile, Obama has followed Bushs secretive and possibly illegal use of force through a campaign of drone strikes conducted by the U.S. military and CIA.
The Bush library presents George W. Bushs version of how it was and why he chose to do what he did. But ultimately his legacy is not about the past, but about how that past will shape Americas principles and behavior in the future.
Obama did the proper thing in praising his predecessors strengths, but he must remember Bushs failings on secrecy and the abuse of military force. Otherwise, some of the worst aspects of the Bush legacy could become part of his own.