With new presidential library, George W. Bush back in public eye
WASHINGTON — President Obama, the four living ex-presidents and thousands of others head to Dallas on Thursday for the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum. The challenge facing library officials will be to keep the crowds coming after that.
Popularity translates into box office receipts at presidential libraries. And although Bush’s poll ratings have improved since he left office, more Americans continue to view him negatively than favorably. By contrast, even presidents whom voters threw out after one term — Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Bush’s father — were regarded favorably by the public by the time their libraries opened.
In Bush’s case, his reputation is more than a topic for historians. It could have a direct bearing on the next presidential election. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is leaving the door open for a 2016 run, and the former president said he hoped his image wouldn’t hurt his younger brother’s chances.
“I would hope that people would judge [him], if Jeb were to run, on his merits and his track record,” Bush told Parade magazine recently.
The interview was part of a carefully choreographed effort surrounding the opening of the Bush library at Southern Methodist University. The rollout includes a series of TV interviews with Bush and his wife, Laura, on ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN. Fox News, whose conservative viewers represent the Bush library’s biggest target audience, will get two interviews.
The resemblance to the start of a national campaign is no accident. For a former president seeking to turn around public opinion about his tenure, “the presidential library is their key to getting a better place in American history,” said Benjamin Hufbauer of the University of Louisville, who is a specialist on presidential libraries.
Bush’s reemergence comes after several low-profile years. He did not attend last year’s Republican convention and played no role in the 2012 campaign. More recently, he became a grandfather for the first time and attracted unexpected attention for his newest hobby: painting.
“People are surprised,” he told the Dallas Morning News. “Of course, some people are surprised I can even read.”
Dedicating a new presidential library is a chance for the ex-president and his supporters to cast him in the most favorable light, and for the news media to reassess his record.
The Bush library is opening in the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon attack, the first successful terrorist bombing on U.S. soil since 2001. Bush, whose presidency was transformed by the Sept. 11 attacks, has called the absence of another terrorist strike during the rest of his tenure his most meaningful accomplishment as president.
And yet, sharp criticism over his handling of the Iraq war, the fumbled federal response to Hurricane Katrina and the worst financial crisis since the Depression dealt a blow to his popularity that has yet to subside. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll this month found that 35% of Americans viewed Bush positively and 44% unfavorably (a new ABC News-Washington Post poll on his performance as president showed a smaller net negative assessment, with 47% positive to 50% negative).
In his 2010 memoir, Bush wrote that it was “too early to say how most of my decisions will turn out.” But he noted that the verdict of history had changed for the better for previous presidents.
Bush’s library is the 13th operated by the National Archives. Together, the libraries attract nearly 2 million visitors a year. The Ronald Reagan library in Simi Valley is the most popular, with more than 380,000 museum visitors in the most recent year, and the highest ticket price ($21). Another top draw is the Abraham Lincoln library and museum, run by the state of Illinois. By contrast, the Herbert Hoover library in Iowa gets fewer than 45,000 annual museum visitors, despite its location near a busy interstate highway and a $6 entrance fee.
Private funds are used to build the libraries, provide an endowment sufficient to cover maintenance of the building and pay some of the costs of the exhibits and public programs. Taxpayer funds pay for many operating costs and the professional archivists who maintain the historical records of the presidency, the public purpose for which the libraries ostensibly exist. Despite the commitment to scholarship, however, the libraries increasingly have come to commemorate the legacies of the former presidents whose names they bear.
Former presidents have total freedom to portray their life and times however they wish until they turn over their libraries to the National Archives, as Bush will do this week. Even after the Archives takes control, a more historically neutral depiction of a president’s record typically comes only after his death and those of his immediate family and close aides.
“It’s always difficult when the former president is wandering the halls,” said Richard Cox, an archivist at University of Pittsburgh, who has criticized as unhealthy the cozy relationship between former presidents and library officials.
Hufbauer, another critic, said that even the most popular museums struggle to stay relevant and keep drawing paying visitors. As president in 2005, George W. Bush spoke at the opening of the Air Force One pavilion at the Reagan library, which produced a jump in attendance. But even the Reagan library has had to reach for new ways to attract visitors, with temporary exhibits such as a display of Disney memorabilia.
At the outset, the new Bush library will in effect be “a huge, glitzy, glamorous museum of spin. A giant campaign commercial in museum form,” said Hufbauer, author of “Presidential Temples: How Memorials and Libraries Shape Public Memory.”
The bullhorn Bush used to address rescue workers in New York in September 2001, a twisted steel beam from the World Trade Center and the pistol Saddam Hussein carried when he was pulled from a spider hole in Iraq are among the artifacts on exhibit. A standard attraction at presidential museums — a replica of the Oval Office — also will be on display.
But two other presidential libraries within a few hours’ drive — Lyndon B. Johnson’s in Austin and George H.W. Bush’s in College Station — also have Oval Office reproductions, suggesting another challenge that the Bush center’s management could face: presidential library glut.
The museum, with an admission charge of $16, opens to the public May 1, the 10th anniversary of one of the gaudiest moments of Bush’s presidency: Dressed in a flight suit, he landed in a fighter jet on the deck of the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, where he proclaimed the end of major combat operations in Iraq beneath a banner declaring “Mission Accomplished.” The war, of course, would not end for years.