George W. Bush museum reflects style, personality of nation’s 43rd president


Statues of former Presidents George W. Bush, left and George H.W. Bush are seen during a tour of the George W. Bush Presidential Center on Wednesday. (David J. Phillip/AP)
April 24, 2013

There are twisted girders from the twin towers of the World Trade Center, the bullhorn he used from atop the pile of rubble at Ground Zero in New York, an exact replica of his Oval Office and, yes, even his personal collection of signed baseballs.

When visitors tour the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, they will find a facility that reflects the character and personality of the former president: straightforward, confident, unapologetic and willing to let history be the ultimate decider of his time in office.

The library and museum, housed on the campus of Southern Methodist University, will be dedicated Thursday morning. The ceremony will include President Obama and all the living former presidents. The museum and library will open to the public next Wednesday.

The 43,620-square-foot museum recalls the controversies of the 43rd president’s eight years in power, starting with the Florida recount in the 2000 election that put him in the White House to the decision to invade Iraq in March 2003, to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 to the U.S. financial crisis of 2007 and 2008.

But the museum touts many other aspects of Bush’s presidency — from passage of the No Child Left Behind Act and the prescription drug benefit to his advocacy of comprehensive immigration reform and the initiative to combat HIV-AIDS in Africa — which the former president and his advisers see as important parts of his legacy.

“One of the instructions that he always gave throughout was that this museum is not a monument to him, but a monument to principles that brought him into public office. And that’s what inspired him, and that’s what still inspires him,” said Brendan Miniter, senior editorial director at the George W. Bush Presidential Center.

The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, transformed Bush’s presidency, and if there is a core of the museum, it is the section dealing with that day and its aftermath. The girders from the World Trade Center provide the most arresting symbol of the attacks, while video displays show footage of the most horrific moments. The names of the approximately 3,000 people who died at the trade center, the Pentagon or on the hijacked planes are listed on the same wall.

That gives way to another set of displays under the heading “Defending Freedom,” which encompasses the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and other policies the administration said were aimed at combating terrorism. A map of the world highlights where many other acts of terrorism have occurred.

A large interactive table — evidence that this museum was built in the digital age — allows visitors to see more details and documents about Iraq and Afghanistan. Nearby, a short video narrated by former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice explains the decision to invade Iraq and acknowledges that no weapons of mass destruction were found there.

Bush recently told the Dallas Morning News, “Much of my presidency was defined by things that you didn’t necessarily want to have happen.” The museum provides an opportunity to revisit some of the decisions he made in response to those events and even to disagree with his actions.

The Decision Points Theater focuses on four key moments of the Bush presidency: the 2003 invasion of Iraq; the decision announced in January 2007 to send an additional 30,000 troops to that country (known as the troop surge); the administration’s heavily criticized response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005; and the decision to bail out the banks after the financial collapse in the fall of 2008.

The theater puts visitors in front of their own terminals, where former White House chiefs of staff Andrew H. Card Jr. and Joshua B. Bolten narrate a presentation about the policy choices Bush faced during those events. As visitors weigh the options, breaking-news alerts interrupt them, aimed at heightening the pressure and complicating the decision making process. Visitors vote on their preferred response to each situation, and then Bush offers his explanation of what action he took and why.

The museum is part of the 226,000-square-foot George W. Bush Presidential Center, which houses two brick-and-Texas-limestone buildings constructed almost as one. One building contains the library and museum, which will be under the control of the National Archives and Records Administration. The other is home to the George W. Bush Institute, a think tank that carries on work that Bush began in office.

Designed by Robert A.M. Stern, dean of the Yale School of Architecture, the complex sits on 23 acres on the SMU campus and includes 15 acres of grounds planted with native Texas trees, wildflowers and grasses. The buildings have received a LEED platinum certification for energy efficiency and sustainable development.

The Bush archives include more than 70 million pages of paper records, 200 million e-mails and 4 million digital photographs, according to a fact sheet from the Bush Center. There are roughly 80 terabytes of digital material overall.

The first of the president’s papers will be released early next year, but the bulk of his presidential record will not be available for a decade or more because of federal statutes governing presidential papers and time needed to process the huge amount of material.

The museum takes visitors through all aspects of Bush’s life and presidency, beginning in West Texas, where he was reared by his father, George H.W. Bush, and mother, Barbara. One of the first visuals visitors will see is a wall-size photograph of the Texas night sky taken at the Bush ranch in Crawford, which served as a kind of summer White House when he was in office.

Visitors then move on to the 2000 election, which features videos from election night as Bush was declared, and then undeclared, the winner when the vote count in Florida narrowed dramatically.

The displays include a butterfly ballot from Palm Beach County, Fla., which caused confusion among many voters on Election Day 2000, as well as a small quilt that is designed with replicas of newspaper front pages chronicling the recount.

The presidency that Bush had hoped for when he was inaugurated is the theme of the next section: the tax cuts he enacted, most of which were just made permanent at the end of last year; the education reform bill he passed with the help of the late senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.); and his faith-based initiative — all of which occurred in the first eight months he was in office.

Once past the section that covers Sept. 11, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the fight against terrorism, less-controversial Bush initiatives — including the effort to combat HIV-AIDS in Africa — come into focus.

One feature likely to be popular is the replica of Bush’s Oval Office. Museum designers have been sticklers in trying to make the exhibit as exact as possible, down to its siting with the back windows facing south. Visitors will be able to walk into the Oval Office and be photographed behind the presidential desk.

Mark Langdale, president of the George W. Bush Foundation, described the opening of the library and museum as the part of the birth of the historic perspective on this president that he said started with Bush’s 2010 memoir. He said the former president and first lady Laura Bush were heavily involved in architectural decisions, as well as in how the story of the presidency is told in the museum.

“Historians will start adding other points of view and doing what happens over time,” Langdale said. “But this is a reflection of what [the Bushes] think is important about what happened in their service.”

Karen Hughes, who served as counselor to Bush in the White House, said visitors will gain a sense “of the principles and values” that guided Bush in office. “He told the designer that he wanted to present the facts . . . and let people draw their own conclusions.”

Discuss this topic and other political issues in the politics discussion forums.

Dan Balz is Chief Correspondent at The Washington Post. He has served as the paper’s National Editor, Political Editor, White House correspondent and Southwest correspondent.
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