Former President George W. Bush is preparing for one final struggle against the odds: raising $300 million for a presidential library, museum and policy institute at a time when dollars are tight and skepticism about his presidency runs high.
The former president and first lady have already begun holding small private dinners to persuade wealthy friends to invest in a monument and incubator based on the values and events of his presidency. By this fall, he’ll be armed with architect’s renderings and will hold travel around the country to meet with groups and build support for the complex on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
Some of his new neighbors are less than thrilled with the plan, with a handful of history and political science professors lined up to criticize it.. But SMU fought hard to win the library, as one of eight original bidders and then four semi-finalists for the honor.
“We’ve certainly had to defend our decision, but absolutely feel like it was the right one,” SMU’s president, R. Gerald Turner, told POLITICO. “The overall sentiment on the faculty is that whether they agreed with the president personally or not, it’s great to have these papers and this resource on campus.”
Bush has often gotten out of jams by dint of personal charm, and he’s trying that once again. Two weeks ago, to show he wants to get involved in the SMU community, Bush made a surprise visit to Political Science professor Harold Stanley’s 9:30 a.m. “Intro to American Government and Politics” class.
Turner accompanied him and asked the 29 sleepy students, “Do you recognize the 43rd president of the United States?”
Bush talked for 10 minutes and took questions for another 50, on everything from the stimulus to banking to whether he had seen the Oliver Stone movie “W” (no) to whether diversity was a goal when he was picking his Cabinet (he said he went for the best person).
One woman advised him to use lots of anecdotes when he’s writing his upcoming book about the big decisions he made during his presidency.
The personal touch worked – the kids lapped it up and hung around him afterward.
“Any professor would envy having this rapt a classroom,” recalled Stanley, the professor.
Friends say that besides writing his memoirs and embarking on a lucrative international speaking tour, Bush plans to stay active in such signature issues as combating AIDS and malaria in Africa, and supporting the families of fallen soldiers.
Groundbreaking for the George W. Bush Presidential Center is scheduled for the fall of 2010, with the grand opening expected in the spring of 2013. The center will have three parts — a library, where Bush’s papers will be stored; a museum of exhibits; and a policy institute, with plans for such novel programs as conversations with retired international leaders about their time in office.
The way presidential libraries work, the library and museum will be run by the government after they’re built by the George W. Bush Foundation, which is chaired by Donald L. Evans, the president’s longtime friend and former Commerce secretary.
Evans, who has been planning the project since at least January 2005, said that Laura Bush has been very involved in creating the interpretation for the museum. He hinted that the displays will follow a format similar to the president’s book, built around five or six big decisions, such as whether to go to war with Iraq.
Evans promises “an honest presentation of the very difficult choices the president had to make, but certainly an opportunity to highlight the many accomplishments of his presidency, as well,” with an emphasis on “the values and principles that drive him.”
The most interesting – and controversial – part of the plan is the George W. Bush Policy Insitute, which will remain controlled by the president’s foundation and will open well before the planned museum opening in 2013.
SMU’s president says the institute will be more “vibrant … than simply being a museum frozen in time.”
The president’s advisers are still chewing over what topics to emphasize. Iraq is unlikely to be one of them. Advisers say they have made a specific decision to leave that verdict to history and not try to defend or litigate it at a time when Iraq could still wind up as either a democracy or a disaster.
One of the original ideas was to emphasize the president’s so-called “freedom agenda” of democracy for the Middle East, and there was even talk of calling it The Freedom Institute.
That name -- never finalized --was scrapped, in part because many people immediately associated the name with the Middle East, and the institute will have a much broader focus. And lots of other organizations already use “freedom” in their titles; the Bush planners wanted to avoid being confused with them.
Evans said an umbrella topic will be the role of government in a capitalist democracy. But even that may seem a little dated, given the rising role of government in all parts of business – a trend that began on Bush’s watch.
“The president has always had this fundamental believe that government doesn’t create jobs, doesn’t create wealth,” Evans said. “The private sector does that, and its government’s role to create the environment for the private sector to thrive.”
Bush aides say focus areas for the institute include are likely to include AIDS relief in Africa; No Child Left Behind and other education reforms; faith-based initiatives; and combating protectionism.
Mark Langdale, president of the George W. Bush Foundation, calls the institute “a place where scholars and people who were involved in the making of history can discuss their past efforts and look forward to craft better policies for the future, regardless of party affiliation.”
“Former presidents have a unique platform to get people to come together and think about bigger ideas that transcend the partisan debate,” he said.
Langdale said one idea for distinguishing the think tank from others is to run demonstration tests or pilot projects based on ideas generated from there.
“That’s a little bit different than what other presidential libraries have done, and it’s a little bit different than defending the record,” Langdale said. “By the time the Institute is focusing on a problem, there’ll be new information and new perspectives shaping the policy debate, beyond what happened in the Bush administration.”