Bush's Post-Presidency to Include More Than a Library

By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 18, 2009

Many former presidents rise to a second act. Jimmy Carter founded a human rights center and won the Nobel Peace Prize. Bill Clinton established a charity and traveled the world making speeches. Even the disgraced Richard Nixon opened a foreign-policy think tank shortly before his death.

Now it's George W. Bush's turn.

After handing over the White House to President-elect Barack Obama on Tuesday, Bush, 62, will return to Texas to begin his own post-presidency, including plans to build a library, museum and public-policy center in Dallas, that is far more ambitious than those of most other former commanders in chief.

In addition to the cost -- $300 million for the building and as much as $200 million for an endowment -- Bush's plans stand out as an effort to defend his tumultuous White House years and to continue the debate over his most controversial domestic and foreign policies. The George W. Bush Presidential Center will include a "Freedom Institute" focused on a broad portfolio of topics, including the expansion of democracy abroad and education reforms of the kind Bush implemented during his presidency, according to organizers.

"The president's vision is for it to become an incubator of ideas, discussion and debate about the issues that were front and center during his presidency, including the controversy," said Dan Bartlett, a former counselor to Bush who is acting as a spokesman for the project. "The idea here is to have a place where that debate can continue."

Bush's post-White House life begins Tuesday with a welcome-home rally in his home town of Midland, Tex., followed by a return to the family's Prairie Chapel Ranch in Crawford, Tex.

By next month, the Bushes are expected to move into a newly purchased $2.1 million house in the exclusive Preston Hollow neighborhood of Dallas, a short drive from the planned library complex on the campus of Southern Methodist University. The General Services Administration, which provides office space for former presidents, has also leased 8,000 square feet of space for Bush in a nearby high-rise.

Bush, who has said he will likely pen a memoir and eventually hit the lecture circuit, has talked glowingly about his hopes for the policy center, and insists that his vision for it extends far beyond his own presidency. "This is not going to be a 'George Bush Is a Wonderful Person Center,' or 'The Center for Republican Party Campaign Tactics,' " Bush said during one of his last media interviews as president. "It's going to be a place of debate, thought, writing, lecturing."

But the project has prompted skepticism among many academics, who argue that Bush appears set on using the center to rewrite his legacy as a president who led the nation into an unpopular war and an economic crisis. Many SMU faculty members and students also oppose the project, arguing that it would not conduct the kind of unbiased research a university should encourage.

Bruce Buchanan, a professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin, said the center must welcome dissent and criticism of the Bush presidency if it is to be taken seriously. But Buchanan and others also said they expect that part of the aim of the project is to shore up Bush's reputation.

"I think he is stung by the reaction to him," Buchanan said, referring to Bush's deep unpopularity in his second term. "Nobody else is going to make the case for him right now, so he wants to make it."

According to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, Bush is wrapping up his tenure with a 66 percent disapproval rating, matching Nixon's when he resigned in August 1974. Bush's job approval rating finishes at 33 percent, with 68 percent of Republicans, 34 percent of independents and 6 percent of Democrats giving him good marks. More than half of all Americans blame Bush "a great deal" or "a good amount" for the country's economic problems, and nearly six in 10 estimate that he will go down in history as a below-average president -- nearly five times as many as said so of his father, George H.W. Bush, when he left the White House in 1993.

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