Nations define themselves by what they preserve and remember. At the dedication of his presidential library on June 30, 1941, Franklin Delano Roosevelt observed that to maintain important presidential records and archival materials, “A Nation must believe in three things. It must believe in the past. It must believe in the future. It must, above all, believe in the capacity of its own people so to learn from the past that they can gain in judgment in creating their own future.”
Following in this tradition, the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum opened its own doors to the nation on May 1, 2013. At SMU’s Center for Presidential History, we recognize this occasion as a great gain not only for the University but also for the city of Dallas, the nation and the world.
Over the past half-century and more, presidential libraries have become our nation’s public squares beyond the confines of Washington’s beltway. They are places where great minds gather to discuss, and yes, often to debate, the central political and cultural questions of our day. As repositories of the past scattered throughout the land, they are magnets for powerful minds of all political stripes, eager to shape and to serve the nation.
Presidential libraries help us bridge the gap between history and the present. The buildings and museum exhibits physically remind us that past presidents remain profoundly relevant to our lives today. The George W. Bush Library, for example, frames its museum exhibits with four themes – freedom, responsibility, opportunity, and compassion – themes that clearly reverberate beyond the years of President Bush’s administration.
A presidential library’s ongoing role is what universities have always embraced: the expansion of knowledge through an open venue for the honest and unabashed exchange of ideas. Presidential libraries also provide a common space for government and educational institutions to interact with the broader citizenry. SMU’s Center for Presidential History and the Bush Library and Museum consider this sort of public engagement vital to our missions. We already partner with the Bush Library and its Director Alan Lowe in the ongoing series of lectures “Presidential Histories and Memoirs.” These lectures have been free to the public and to date have featured world-renowned scholars on Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, George W. Bush and Calvin Coolidge. In fall 2013 discussions will focus on Franklin Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, George Washington and more.
Finally, and perhaps most important for future generations, presidential libraries act as the primary conduit of archival information between scholars and the public. As such, they serve to enhance understanding of U.S. leaders’ contributions to American history and even clarify public misconceptions about them.
For example, our understanding of President Eisenhower wholly changed once historians gained access to his administration’s records. A globally famous war hero, Ike cultivated an image of detached leadership during his presidency. He allowed others within his government to enjoy the limelight. Release of his administration’s records revealed just how in command, day-to-day and moment-to-moment, he was over his entire government, especially his foreign policy. These revelations sparked a whole new term for his management style – “the hidden hand” presidency – ultimately adopted by management experts in the decades since, to explain a powerful leader confident enough to lead from the shadows of his own government.
Over the next several decades, members of the National Archives and Records Administration will work with library archivists to process, preserve and provide access to archival materials from the Bush presidency. The George W. Bush Library holds more than 70 million textual documents, as well as millions more in electronic and multimedia records. When cleared, the materials become the sources that scholars of the Bush years will discover and use to understand our nation’s past, making Dallas and SMU a prime destination for scholars from throughout the world for generations to come.
For all these reasons, we at SMU’s Center for Presidential History look forward to the history the George W. Bush Library will tell and the public services it will offer. Even more, we look forward to the crucial role it will play in processing, preserving and providing the records necessary for understanding one of the most historic and tumultuous eight years in our nation’s history.
– Brian Franklin, associate director, SMU’s Center for Presidential History
More information on the Center for Presidential History is available at www.facebook.com/CPHSMU.