It was predictable. That even the faculty, or a large portion of it, at Southern Methodist University in Dallas would have qualms about having the George W. Bush Presidential Library on campus. It was obvious. Now, SMU has not actually been designated as the querulous host. Baylor University in Waco and the University of Texas, not in Austin, God forbid, but Irving are also in the running. Or maybe trying to escape. Ralph Blumenthal spins out the somewhat intricate tale in today's Times, "Faculty at S.M.U. Voices Concern About Bush Library."
The fact is that colleges and universities often host internal sub-institutions that have strange relations to the whole. And these sub-institutions sometimes have an intellectual or even an ideological bent of their own: The Hoover Institution at Stanford, which has been the locus for most important scholarship about the Soviet Union and communism and also about market economics, has had a slightly rightward cast. During the Cold War, centers for Russian studies took on individual and even idiosyncratic identities of their own, many becoming headquarters of Cold War strategy-making, some so soft on the Soviet Union that they looked retrospectively like ships of fools. Columbia's multiple centers for Arab studies and Middle Eastern studies and who knows what other studies have so distinct an ideological prejudice that they intimidated Jewish and other pro-Israel students. The Kirkland Center at Hamilton College, chronicled in The New Criterion over several issues is simply a nuthouse. We all know how Jimmy Carter had besmirched his own Carter Center at Emory University. But he is a bigot, which no one has actually ever charged Bush with being.
The academy, not quite as a whole but more or less overwhelmingly, has been struggling with the Bush administration over issues as important as the environment and stem cell research, and the Bushies have been reflexive and not honest in their tangling. But, at the same time, those academics appointed to economic posts in the administration have been at once very distinguished and independent of the usual political claptrap. Indeed, even on the Iraq war and however badly it is going, the administration has had the historical counsel of the best: Fouad Ajami and Bernard Lewis. Asleep, they are more awake than Juan Cole at his computer. And they are deep while he writes for a permanent and angry teach-in. What is S.M.U. really worried about. Its intellectual reputation? Please.
My own issue with Presidential Libraries is more general. They are vanity enterprises. Scholarship would be much better served if presidential documents were deposited in the National Archives. Imagine what a scholar of the Cold War has to do to see salient materials on the Cold War. First, he has to go to Hyde Park, N.Y. to Independence, Missouri, to Abilene, Kansas, to Boston, Massachusetts, to Austin, Texas, to Loma Linda, California, to Grand Rapids, Michigan, to Atlanta, Georgia, to who knows where George Bush I has deposited his clutter, to Little Rock, Arkansas. Have I left anyone out?
Let them each have their personal museums to which, over time, almost no one will go. A few years ago, I drove to Hyde Park to see FDR's galleries of remembrance. There were three other visitors on a clear week-end day. So why not have a collection of Bush memorabilia? At Southern Methodist or at Crawford, where one might see the books Barb read him so that he wouldn't be a child left behind. But the materials which have genuine historical or scholarly significance should not be confused with little totems to a president's ego.