Presidential Museums

An aspect of America’s imperial presidency is the custom of the Presidential Library and Museum – that is, after a president is no longer in office, all of the documents relating to his term get transported to an elaborate, specially-built building somewhere, which also features a museum devoted to his life and times. (I’m debating whether it is a good thing that these are built, not with tax money, but with private “donations.”) Three such institutions are in Texas, and we visited all of them. They are:

1. The Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum, on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin.


2. The George Bush Presidential Library and Museum, on the campus of Texas A&M University in College Station.


3. The George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas.


I think that Johnson had the most interesting building. The largest and most elaborate was George W. Bush’s – this was also the most venal, charging $17 to get in, $25 to get your picture taken at his desk, and $2 for postcards in the gift shop. But all of them are staffed by friendly, helpful, and knowledgeable volunteers. Of course, the main problem with the museums is that they are pretty one-sided. For instance, you won’t see LBJ lifting his beagle up by the ears, or learn about his habit of addressing subordinates while sitting on the toilet. You won’t read about George Bush saying “Read my lips: no new taxes” or “Message: I care,” or learn anything about Willie Horton or the time when he vomited on the Japanese Prime Minister. And you definitely won’t read that George W. Bush said “Heckuva job, Brownie!” in the wake of Hurricane Katrina or asked “Is our children learning?” on the campaign trail, or that he nominated Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court or that his war provoked the largest political protests in history. I suppose this gap, between what’s presented and what you remember, is the widest in the case of George W. Bush, although I assume this is at least partly because I remember his presidency the most clearly. However, I do remember the George Bush as he appears in this museum – how he was such an optimistic person. The Iraq War was not about oil, nor about Israel, nor about vindicating his dad, although I’m sure all of those played a part. Fundamentally, Bush really believed that inside every Iraqi was an American waiting to get out – or rather, that everyone in the world yearns for “freedom,” as an American might understand it, and that we protect our own security when we try to spread the benefits of our way of life. He really believed that every child has the capacity to learn, if only we enforced high standards and held schools accountable for them.

The unintended consequences of both of these projects will be with us for some time to come…