It seems to have become a custom in the Republic that ex-presidents build a stately pleasure palace — euphemistically called a “presidential library” — that is grander than their predecessors’, like fraternity brothers competing in drinking contests.
The outsized monuments to recent presidential egos are a far cry from the quaint Victorian memorial cottage of the 29th President Warren Harding. The royal treatment took on speed with the monolithic Lyndon Johnson affair, outdone by the glassy panorama of the Bill Clinton extravaganza, and has evolved into the post-apocalyptic, appropriately funereal design of the newly minted George W. Bush library, which evokes the temple in H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine,” to which the Eloi marched to be devoured by the Morlocks.
“Time machine” is an apt descriptor for the Bush library, for in it the visitor is asked to breathe the sweet gas of anesthesia, to awaken in a dream world where the former president saved us from faceless forces seeking to, as the platitude goes, “destroy our American way of life.” This is clearly an attempt to sucker an ever-gullible American public all too willing to reinforce its amnesia regarding the most catastrophic presidency in modern recollection — perhaps in all of American history.
If the mainstream media is to be believed, the joy at the opening of this library was universal, with any clucking of tongues drowned out by the clicking of heels. So let me provide some counterweight: The George W. Bush Presidential Library is a monument to ignorance of the first order. More, it is an oxymoron of the first order, to wit: The president who had nothing but contempt for learning, books and considered thought — not to mention the power, experience and wisdom of diplomacy — has promoted the founding of a library, of all things, that bears his name. It is akin to a bull extolling the virtues of a well-kept china shop.
Consider the pain that the other past presidents — as well as the current one — must have experienced as they were compelled by etiquette to excavate something to praise in George W. Bush’s performance as chief executive. Pity them, for it must have been like stepping through a minefield, seeking solid, reassuring ground amidst the explosive issues of torture, special rendition, the Guantanamo gulag, the unprovoked attack on Iraq, the accompanying lies that got us there, wireless wiretaps on American citizens and the outing of undercover CIA agent Valerie Plame. The head of state of any other civilized country would have found himself facing a judge, and with no prospect of a library to, in the words of Bill Clinton, “rewrite history.”
Bush always claimed to lead with his “gut.” It is a peculiar commentary on the voting public that they would twice elect a president who disdained history, had little life of the mind and acted on impulse. The problem — and this is the main problem — is that his impulses led to the deaths of countless children, women and men — including this nation’s own children in uniform — all in the name of making us more “secure,” and, if some analysts are to be believed, seeking revenge on Saddam Hussein for allegedly plotting to kill his father.
In actuality, Bush’s actions, in betraying the most sacred principles of our democracy, endangered all of us by creating a further generation of those who would do us harm. But the president was not devoid of talent. He played to the chumps — those who could be made to believe that Iraq was involved in the World Trade Center attack (it wasn’t), possessed weapons of mass destruction (it didn’t) and that torture is acceptable when the United States does it (it’s not and never will be) — and they were delighted to follow.
At the outset of this piece I wrote that the George W. Bush library was a monument to ignorance of the first order. But on second thought, that’s not accurate. Ignorance had relatively little to do with the man’s betrayal of American principles and his enshrining of brutality and lawlessness as productive means of achieving one’s objectives. Rather, the culprit was arrogance — the belief that one is always right, all opposition is misguided, and ends justify the means.
Of all the distinguished personalities gathered for the dedication of this library, the only remark worth noting was that made by the former president’s mother, Barbara Bush. When asked about the possibility of brother Jeb running for president, she replied, “We’ve had enough Bushes.”
Robert Klose teaches biology at UMA-Bangor. He is a frequent contributor of essays to The Christian Science Monitor and the author of “The Three-Legged Woman and Other Excursions in Teaching.”