Bush’s Bookend

How will W's library—and his think tank—shape his legacy?


In August, Karl Rove addressed the prevailing view that historians will judge President Bush an abject failure. In the pages of the right-wing National Review, Rove wrote: “I believe history will provide a more clear-eyed verdict on this president’s leadership than the anger of current critics would suggest. President Bush will be viewed as a farsighted leader who confronted the key test of the 21st century.” It’s not surprising that Rove would say so. His own legacy is inextricably tied up with that of his former boss. But Rove also may be hinting at something else-perhaps a plan to ensure that the history of the Bush presidency is written by its boosters.

Rove has taken a keen interest in the planning of the George W. Bush Presidential Library at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, even injecting himself into such minutiae as the size of the library’s auditorium. He spent time examining other presidential libraries. As it turns out, the Bush library will boast one feature that no other presidential library has-a think tank.

While many of Bush’s presidential records will be kept hidden from historians, thanks to an executive order signed in 2001, the doors of the library’s policy institute will likely be flung open for those friendly to Bush’s ideology.

The idea is, “They’re going to try to generate the next generation of policies for the Republican Party,” says Benjamin Hufbauer, author of Presidential Temples: How Libraries and Memorials Shape Public Memory, “and I think they wouldn’t mind if a historian was in residence giving talks or writing books about the good things, from their perspective, the Bush administration has done.”

The library could cost as much as half a billion dollars. With that kind of money, the think tank could place big names on the payroll, including members of the Bush administration and other loyalists in academia or the media. The Institute for Democracy-as some Bush insiders are calling it-could someday rank in the big leagues with the Brookings Institution and the American Enterprise Institute.

It’s somewhat ironic that the Bush administration-known for subjugating policy to politics and the permanent campaign-would create the first presidential library with a policy think tank attached. That has led some critics to wonder if the think tank will engage in genuine policy innovation or mainly try to shape Bush’s legacy. Either way, it has the imprimatur of a university, Laura Bush’s alma mater, Southern Methodist University.

“A very clever cloak is they got it at SMU, a very prestigious university . . . The prestige rubs off,” Hufbauer says.

The commingling of academia and politics has irked some SMU faculty and members of the United Methodist Church, who unsuccessfully tried to nix the deal. According to an agreement between SMU and the Bush library foundation, the policy institute will be governed by a board appointed mostly by the foundation board members-including Marvin Bush (the president’s younger brother), Don Evans (a Bush pal and former secretary of commerce), and Craig Stapleton (a Bush cousin). The institute will have sole authority to select fellows. Dennis Foster, president of the SMU faculty senate, says administration officials have insisted that the library and policy center will be “nonpartisan” and “not a monument.” Possible conflicts of mission “between the university and the think tank” have not been addressed, Foster says.

Construction won’t begin until 2009, but Bush think tank fellows could set up before the president exits the White House. “I expect the institute to have some kind of life relatively soon,” Foster says. “From what Bush has said, he’s eager to get started.”

-Forrest Wilder