David Glenn: Controversy over the Bush library is only the latest in a delicate dance between U.S. presidents and the universities that house their papers

Roundup: Talking About History

In 1937, Franklin D. Roosevelt hatched the idea of donating his presidential papers to the National Archives. As a bonus, he would give the archives part of his Hyde Park estate, where the papers could be housed. Before presenting the scheme to Congress, however, Roosevelt was anxious to secure "the sanction of scholars," as he put it in a letter to the Harvard University historian Samuel Eliot Morison. In 1938, Roosevelt brought together a distinguished group of academics and asked their advice about how best to keep his papers "whole and intact in their original condition, available to scholars of the future in one definite locality."

Roosevelt almost certainly had a sincere interest in the scholars' advice — but he might have also wanted their imprimatur in order to stave off criticism that he was putting together a vanity project. (When he did finally present the idea to Congress, one Republican declared that "only an egocentric megalomaniac would have the nerve to ask for such a measure.")

Sixty-odd years after Roosevelt's awkward courtship of American historians, the Texas Tech University marching band spelled out the letters B-U-S-H one afternoon in support of the university's bid, eventually unsuccessful, to house the prospective George W. Bush Presidential Library. In a consortium with Midland College and six local governments, Texas Tech sent the White House a proposal that included an eight-minute, sun-and-flag-drenched video narrated by the "cowboy poet" Red Steagall.

In the 21st century, in other words, the awkward courtship goes in both directions. Universities vie for presidential libraries because they offer visibility, prestige, and access to powerful new fund-raising networks. Presidents, in turn, want university partners for their libraries (every president from John F. Kennedy forward has sought one) because universities can provide volunteers, technical expertise, and academic respectability. The audiotapes of Lyndon B. Johnson swearing at his aides and telling dirty jokes somehow seem less sordid on the University of Texas campus than they might in his hometown of Johnson City.

Marriages between universities and presidential libraries are not always entirely happy, however. Scholars at host universities sometimes complain about opaque finances, vacuous museum exhibits, and the danger that anything an ex-president does or says will rub off on the university's reputation. In recent weeks, for example, a few scholars have urged Emory University to distance itself from the Carter Center — or even to sever its ties altogether — because of Jimmy Carter's alleged refusal to debate critics of his recent book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.

The controversy at Emory has been dwarfed, of course, by the tempest at Southern Methodist University, the official finalist for the George W. Bush Library. The library is almost certainly coming to SMU — a final agreement is expected "in a matter of weeks, not months," says Brad E. Cheves, the university's vice president for development and external affairs. But faculty members critical of the deal are making a last-ditch effort to stop it, or at least to alter its parameters.....

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