David Greenberg: Bush Wars ... The Final Frontier

Roundup: Historians' Take

[David Greenberg, an assistant professor of history and journalism at Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, N.J., is the author of three books, “Nixon’s Shadow,” “Presidential Doodles” and, most recently, “Calvin Coolidge.” He writes the “History Lesson” column for Slate.]

With the title of his 1980 book, the journalist Sidney Blumenthal coined a term that has entered the political lexicon: “The Permanent Campaign.” The phrase denotes the blurring of the line in modern times between campaigning and governing. Presidents, of course, have always made decisions with an eye on their popularity. But with the advent of television, polling, and professional consultants, presidents of the 1970s and ’80s—Nixon, Carter, and Reagan in particular—upped the ante by devoting the full arsenal of modern electioneering tools not just to winning office but to holding office as well.

Recently, the permanent campaign has added yet another stage—a final frontier. This is the fight for history, centered on the presidents’ libraries. The presidential libraries date from 1939, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt conceived his as a repository for his public papers, to be built with private funds and run by public officials. Since then, chief executives have sought to outdo their predecessors by entombing their archives in extravagant, self-memorializing shrines. These museums extend the permanent campaign by utilizing the same public relations techniques as a race for the White House—and lately requiring comparable fundraising efforts to boot.

Fittingly, Nixon and Carter were the ex-presidents who most assiduously sought to revive their badly damaged reputations, through their libraries and other activities. George W. Bush has taken this campaign for history to a new level. As the New York Daily News reported last fall, Bush’s team has imagined the most grandiose presidential library yet. His crack fundraisers are aiming to rake in a record-breaking $500 million for his personal temple, passing the cattle hat to “wealthy heiresses, Arab nations and captains of industry,” as the newspaper put it. For the site, Bush chose Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, the First Lady’s alma mater.

Maybe Bush feared the reaction if he sought to build his library at Yale, his own undergraduate stomping grounds. But if he was hoping for smoother sailing in deep-red Texas, he miscalculated. The news of the museum’s impending arrival hardly went well on the S.M.U. campus. Universities, after all, are supposed to promote disinterested research, and the gilded histories that tend to adorn the presidential galleries don’t exactly pulse with evenhandedness.

Making matters worse, the Bush team stipulated that the university should host a “Bush Institute.” This proposed policy shop, a spokesman for the president’s camp told the Daily News, would hire right-wing scholars or journalists and “give them money to write papers and books favorable to the president’s policies.”...

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