An institute designed to promote a particular president's policies is not an academic institution

February 2, 2007

Presidential libraries are spreading like pustules across the US. "Library" is a misleading name for these curious institutions. On the one hand, they are publicly maintained and regulated archives of documents deemed by law to belong to the nation when a president retires. So far, so good: before 1935, presidents could do what they liked with the paperwork they had accumulated at the White House. On the other hand, the libraries serve as memorials to those whose papers they house. They can become shrines of cults. They organise symposia and exhibitions, promote publications and sell souvenirs. Partisanship intrudes. At the Harry S.Truman Library, you can buy Truman baseball caps but no Nagasaki sweatshirts. At the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library you can get a sweatshirt emblazoned with Rosie the Riveter, but the Clinton gift shop does not sell stained dresses.

There are 13 such libraries. On present showing, they will continue to proliferate. Of the presidents since Roosevelt, only Nixon escaped this dubious form of commemoration, because his papers were seized by Congress when he resigned in ignominy. Most of the buildings that house the collections are excrescences. Roosevelt designed his own: a risible suburban villa. Clinton's looks like an abandoned railway carriage. Some of the exhibits are footling. At the Truman Library you can see a collection of Caroline Kennedy's dolls, while the Hoover Library has a display of Christmas decorations.

The libraries grow ever more expensive as presidential pretensions inflate. In 1974, Congress decided that taxpayers should no longer pay for them. So each president has had to raise hundreds of millions of dollars to keep the woodworm out and the sycophants at work. But as President George W. Bush stumps up the half billion his shrine will cost, it is not just the bad taste and the suspected corruption of presidential libraries that is causing disquiet.

Brazenly, according to press reports, the Bush Library will house a Bush Institute, "to promote the President's policies of spreading democracy and compassionate conservatism", with offices for Bush and his wife. Staffing will be in the hands of a foundation, nominated by Bush himself. The host university, if there is one, will have no way of controlling cronyism or partisanship in appointments to ostensibly academic positions.

Overwhelmingly, academics in America abhor most of Bush's policies. He has probably, by objective standards, been the worst president in US history.

Others have waged unjust wars, but none has combined immorality and incompetence on the scale of Bush's intervention in Iraq. The blunders over intelligence failures, the breathtaking mismanagement of the Hurricane Katrina disaster and the sheer irresponsibility of the Administration's environmental policies constitute an unprecedented record of catastrophe.

Bush's insouciance and complacency irritate his critics. Few universities want to be tainted by association with his legacy. None worthy of the name of a university should be willing to accept a partisan body masquerading as an academic institute.

A few months ago, Bush's PR staff were claiming that seven universities in Texas were vying to house his library. Now there is one. The president of Baylor University, last to drop out of the running, is reported as describing his institution's withdrawal as "not a failure but a triumph".

Controversy is now focused on Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Mrs Bush's alma mater.

Southern Methodist is an excellent university generally rated below the level it deserves. The temptation to risk a profile-raising fix is enormous. The Bush archive is clearly of historical interest and could be the nucleus of serious research. Oil money flows like a slick wherever the President heads, and the university could make good use of the cash. But 68 professors have launched a campaign to urge their institution to reject Bush's proposal to build his library there. A nationwide movement of Methodist ministers has joined in, on the grounds that Bush's policies have been incompatible with the teachings and traditions of the church.

The most eloquent apologia on the side of the proposal has come from historian David Weber, whom I admire very much. He says a Bush Institute, albeit biased in favour of conservatives, will enhance debate and balance the faculty's liberal majority. But that welcome diversity of opinion should arise without being engineered. We should no more appoint people because they are conservatives than because they are liberals. And an institute designed to promote a particular president's policies is not an academic institution. It will be, at best, a defective think-tank empty of critical thinking. There should be no room for it in a decent university.

Felipe Fernández-Armesto is Prince of Asturias professor of history at Tufts University in the US.

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