What happens when the disingenuous arguments so popular in academia are parroted by the clergy? The results are on display in the campaign to dissuade Southern Methodist University from becoming the home of the future George W. Bush Presidential Library. A recent commentary by Rev. William K. McElvaney and Dr. Susanne Johnson, posted on United Methodist Nexus, shows the library’s critics have little respect for objectivity, and even less for true academic freedom.
The authors write that “SMU’s best interests are served when leadership proceeds without assuming that the reasons for seeking the library at SMU are self-evident.” Yet when listing their objections to the university playing host to this particular presidential library, they lazily repeat the litany of anti-Bush canards that so many misguided leftists take as self-evident: defending our nation against the terror masters is “illegal,” the battle in Iraq based on “false premises,” the Bush administration operates in “secrecy” (and, therefore, the library probably would as well), the president is building a legacy of “environmental predation” and exploiting “gay rights,” and, the inevitable cherry on top, “the most critical erosion of habeas corpus in memory.”
When McElvaney and Johnson argue that students and faculty at SMU should be a part of an ethical discussion of the proposed library site, they want these tired talking points to guide the conversation. Yet no objective analysis of this or any other administration would proceed under such narrow terms. These so-called ethical concerns are really just shoddy cover for a blatant attempt by the writers to deny their own university and community an academic resource based solely on their distaste for one man. If this were not the case, the many accomplishments of the Bush administration would have been listed along with McElvaney and Johnson’s simplistic conclusions — but they were not.
One does not need a wall full of advanced degrees to play the game these writers are playing. According to their line of thinking, the University of Texas should have questioned whether it wanted to house the library of Lyndon Johnson, a vote-stealing, war-mad egomaniac; the people of Atlanta should have had a referendum on hosting the Carter Center, which honors the legacy of an anti-Israel ideologue who never met a murdering tyrant he did not love; the fathers of Little Rock should have rejected the Clinton library because it is not wise to promote a perjurer who disgraced the office of the presidency nearly every day; Springfield’s presidential library committee should have wrung its hands because Abraham Lincoln jailed an anti-Union member of Congress and hundreds of critical newspaper editors during wartime.
It would be interesting to find out what sort of an administration McElvaney and Johnson think should house its library on the campus of SMU — perhaps none, given the school’s denominational affiliation. Leaving that aside, no administration in American history, including that of George Washington, is without its problems, misjudgments, and failures. Yet the study of history is perhaps the noblest academic pursuit. A presidential library is a place of historical inquiry of the highest magnitude and a feather in any university’s cap.
No doubt, the Bush library will promote the president’s ouster of a terrorist-harboring dictator who murdered his own at a rate comparable to Stalin and Hitler, and the courage of the Iraqi people who literally walked in the face of death to exercise the simple act of voting in a free election. It will surely promote the liberation of Afghanistan from religious zealots who shut up and shut out women, and whose ideas on dealing with homosexuals began and ended with death by stoning. The library, in short, will promote this administration’s response to the most threatening menace of this century. But a true academic study of the Bush administration will, as it must, examine its missteps, its errors, and its failings. No serious presidential library does otherwise.
Because a president fails, stumbles, and acts in ways in which some think is entirely wrong, does this mean that that his administration is unworthy of study? Does it mean that agents of a university should actively work to deny a place of study to their own students? Surely the writers are aware that historians — such as Robert Caro, to name just one — practically live at presidential libraries when conducting research that often yields less than flattering portraits of the president in question. Would those now objecting to the library’s presence at SMU be not proud of an academic or trade publication that was highly critical of George W. Bush’s terms in office based on extensive research conducted there?
By objecting to their university housing an edifice within which biographers and historians will toil for decades to come because of churlish prejudice, the critics are repudiating the very precepts of open inquiry and academic integrity they purport to hold dear. If they truly cared about such concepts, they would welcome the Bush library as a place to study the presidency of a criminally negligent clown, not squelch the pursuit of historical study at its highest levels. One would think Bush-hating academics would greet the construction of his library as an opportunity to educate future presidents against bungling so badly. But one would be wrong. To the potential detriment of Southern Methodist University, the library’s opponents are not engaged in the pursuit of knowledge but rather a dubious personal quest that may end up an academic windfall for some other school in Texas.