The balcony of George W. Bush’s office in the Presidential Center bearing his name provides a bird’s-eye view of the SMU campus. But the proximity transcends mere geography. It represents a partnership that promises to offer benefits to both institutional neighbors.
In an interview with SMU Magazine and The Daily Campus, the University’s student newspaper, former President Bush reflected on his hopes for the Bush Library, Museum and Institute. Following is an excerpt from that interview:
Q. What will be the impact of the Bush Center on SMU?
A. Well, I can tell you what the impact of SMU is on the Institute and Library. It gives us great credibility to be associated with a fine university. There are a lot of synergies to be achieved. Here’s a great example. Laura is in charge of what we call the Women’s Initiative. We happen to believe that women will lead the democracy and peace movement in the Middle East. An SMU professor noted that there’s a lack of networking among women in the Middle East. And yet networking among women is important in helping to develop civil society. If women who are mistreated can find solace and aid with other women in their network, it will advance what ought to be a human objective, which is liberty. So now we’re helping set up an Egyptian women’s network. The women come here and their first classes are on the SMU campus. SMU has not only been hospitable, but it’s been of great value to us. Hopefully we will add value, too. One thing is certain. On April 25 when the Center was dedicated, the attention of the country and parts of the world was on the fact that the Bush Center is on the SMU campus. So SMU’s visibility is definitely being raised. We’ll have all kinds of interesting people coming. As more and more people discover the greatness of SMU, the University itself will benefit.
Q. Why did you decide to have an open competition among institutions to house your presidential center?
A. It was important to see what was available. It was a big decision to locate the Center here. This is where Laura and I will spend the rest of our lives. Before we made the decision, we wanted to make sure that we explored all options. One of the things about the presidency, and I hope people recognize this through the Museum or in reading my book, is that when you’re the president, you have to weigh a lot of different opinions before you make a decision. SMU has been the perfect selection for us. And Laura went to school here . Actually, a lot of people who worked in my administration went here, notables like Harriet Miers ’67, Karen Parfitt Hughes ’77 [White House advisers] and Tony Garza ’83, [former ambassador to Mexico].
Q. What role did Mrs. Bush play?
A. When we were briefed, she was in the meetings to hear what the different options were. So it’s a joint decision. She made another significant contribution in chairing the architecture and landscape committee. And that committee made two really good selections in Robert Stern [architect] and Michael Van Valkenburgh [landscape designer]. And she’s very much involved with the Center now. Laura was an active first lady with a lot of projects. Like me, she wants to stay active. What we don’t want to do is atrophy. I don’t how many final chapters there are in my life. But we don’t want to waste a chapter.
Q. What did you hope people would feel after the dedication and their first looks at the Library and Museum?
A. [Dedicating a presidential library] is a great tradition for our country. I remember going to help open President Clinton’s library and to honor him, and then as sitting president he came to help open my dad’s library. Regardless of political party, people come and honor the person by helping to dedicate the presidential library. I’ve seen enough people who’ve come here already and go, “It’s amazing.” But my hope and dreams go way beyond the moment of dedication. I want people to be really impressed with what we do here: running an Institute that is results-oriented and focused on fundamental principles that will endure way beyond my time. It has to be focused on something bigger than a person. I keep reminding people who work here that to succeed, this can’t be about me. It’s got to be about the universality of freedom or the importance of free enterprise or the importance of good education for a free society or the notion that to whom much is given, much is required. Therefore, when we see women dying from cervical cancer in Africa, and not much is being done about it, we want to be involved. We want to contribute. My hope is that 30 years from now (let’s see, I’m 66; I’ll probably be gone), the Institute endures and is a contributor to peace and freedom.
Q. How did you feel the first time you stepped into an SMU classroom?
A. It’s funny. There was a kid on the front row who had his hat on backwards. It was an early morning class, and this kid was half asleep. He looked up and goes, “My gosh, that’s President Bush!” And I thought to myself, “There I was.” I felt youthful. What’s interesting from my perspective is what the questions are like. You can get a sense of the kind of intellectual curiosity or the level of education by listening to the questions. And they were very good questions. I appreciate curiosity.
Q. Years from now, after researchers have been using the resources of the Library, what do you hope they walk away with?
A. An objective analysis of the decisions I’ve made. It’s impossible for anybody to write an objective history until time has passed. History has a long reach. I hope they find the truth about certain aspects of the presidency, that difficult decisions were thoughtfully considered. I hope they discover we had a joyous presidency, that we had fun in the White House. Most of all, I hope they find that we were all there to serve something greater than ourselves, which is the country, not an individual, not a political party, but the country. I hope they see that we faced some pretty tough decisions and that we did our best to solve the problems. The 9/11 exhibit at the Museum is going to be very profound, very profound, and very necessary. It will be a powerful reminder of some truths. One truth is that something is going to happen that you don’t want to have happen. And when you’re the president, you have to deal with it. There’s nothing more important for a president than to protect the country from attack, and we were attacked. In the Museum there are two pieces of twisted steel where it is believed one of the planes hit the World Trade Center, and all the names of those who died are there. It’s a reminder that there is evil in the world. It’s also an important reminder that the human condition abroad matters to security at home. The ground zero part of the Museum will be the most vivid reminder of what took place on that day.
Q. Students are asking through social media how the Bush Presidential Center and SMU can move forward together.
A. I am impressed by SMU. I knew of SMU, but I really didn’t know much about the University. I have great admiration and respect for Gerald Turner. I think he’s really one of the great university presidents. I’ve spent some time in classrooms, and I’ve been impressed by the enthusiasm of the students, the diversity of the student body and the intelligence of the people with whom I’ve come in contact. As I spend more time here in the Center, obviously I’ll be spending time on the SMU campus, which will give me a chance to visit more classrooms. I’ve met some faculty members, and I’ve really enjoyed the experience. As SMU heads into its second 100 years, we can help SMU not only by bringing visibility, but also through the programs we’ll do at the Bush Institute. It is not a political center; we’re a policy-driven center that will help draw attention to the good works of SMU. I hope we’re helpful in defining the next 100 years.
This interview was conducted by student Rahfin Faruk, Daily Campus editor, and Patricia Ann LaSalle, SMU associate vice president for public affairs and executive editor of SMU Magazine.