Cowboy hats, secret files and more headed to Bush library

By Steve Campbell
Monday, December 28, 2009; A13

LEWISVILLE, TEX. -- Eight years of "still-evolving" American history is meticulously catalogued, wrapped, stored and guarded in the climate-controlled warehouse.

Included here are 68 million pages of documents, a surfboard, 175 million e-mails, countless cowboy hats, 3,845,912 photographs, Stan "The Man" Musial's autograph, gold and silver swords, handmade quilts, diamond jewelry, cowboy boots, classified files, a gift from the pope and the 9mm Glock pistol that Saddam Hussein was armed with when he was rooted out of his spider hole in Iraq.

Welcome to the Bush White House, now in storage in Lewisville, where there is even wood flooring from the Oval Office and chairs from the press room.

It will all eventually move to the $300 million George W. Bush Presidential Library opening at Southern Methodist University in 2013. But for now, archivists are trying to get their arms around the massive collection of documents and "museum objects" stored in the 60,000-square-foot facility managed by the National Archives and Records Administration.

Lavish personal gifts -- such as the diamond-and-sapphire jewelry given to first lady Laura Bush by the king of Saudi Arabia and custom cowboy boots with the large "GWB" monogram from Houston bootmaker Rocky Carroll -- grab one's attention first.

"I like to think of them as a good time capsule that reveals everything that is going on during his eight years in office," said Jennifer Schulle, the library's registrar.

"You get to see not only things going on politically, but you see things going on in terms of fashion, social customs, culture," she said. "We've got gifts from 'American Idol' winners and the Jonas Brothers. The gifts really reveal more than just politics."

The art objects include an incredible mosaic of St. Peter's Square given to Bush by Pope Benedict XVI and a stunning gold replica of the Temple of Heaven, given by the Chinese minister of foreign affairs with five figurines from the Beijing Olympics accented with Swarovski crystals.

"When you're the president, you don't get cubic zirconium," Schulle said.

But some of Bush's favorites are more all-American.

"The president truly prized a baseball bat signed by all the living members of the [National] Baseball Hall of Fame in 2001," Schulle said.

Sports paraphernalia is well represented in the collection, said Shannon Jarrett, supervisory archivist at the facility.

"There's a lot of cowboy hats and baseball memorabilia, jerseys from championship teams, bicycles and, of course, every Texas president gets saddles," Jarrett said.

But in the historic realm, it's the documents from momentous events such as the Sept. 11, 2009, and the wars with Iraq and Afghanistan that will prove to be of more lasting value and interest, said Alan Lowe, director of the library.

When Lowe got the "out-of-the-blue" call about the Bush library job in January, he was working at the Howard Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy at the University of Tennessee.

"The Bushes are very much involved in the library," he said. "President Bush has been here looking through photographs. He has been very engaged with us."

Both George W. and Laura Bush are writing books, and "they are probably our main customers right now. They rely very heavily on the records," said Jarrett, a former English teacher who got her start as an archivist at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library and Museum in Austin, when she was a graduate student at the University of Texas.

"It's not a glamour job, but it is very fascinating," she said.

"The really interesting part about working at presidential libraries is that you get to see the history that you don't learn in school textbooks," Jarrett said. "We studied the Johnson administration when I was in school, but what I saw as an archivist was so much more firsthand and a lot more interesting." Eleven people are on staff at the Bush library, Lowe said, with 10 new archivists scheduled to start by mid-January. The staff will eventually number about 35, he said.

And they'll have their work cut out for them as they prepare for the first release of Bush presidential records on Jan. 20, 2013, five years after he left office.

Under the 1981 Presidential Records Act, records can be withheld for five years -- up to 12 years for issues involving national defense and other sensitive issues, Jarrett said. Documents related to national security can be withheld longer. Classified documents are stored in a sealed area of the warehouse.

The library will include materials from the president's post-White House years. "It's history that is still evolving," Lowe said.

Archivists will gradually do a line-by-line review of the documents. "We've got to read those 68 million pages before you can look at them," Jarrett said. "I wish I were a faster reader."

Jodie Steck, who worked as a photo editor at the Bush White House, is now an archives specialist managing the visual collection at the library. She's cataloguing the nearly 4 million images taken by the White House's staff of five photographers.

"We were with the president from the time he walked into the Oval in the morning until the time he put the lid on at the nighttime," Steck said.

"We shot a lot more video than any other presidency," she said. "And more photos because of digital cameras." But one presidential courtesy lived on through all the changes in technology.

"President Bush wanted everyone he shook hands with to have a photo," Steck said. "That was very important to him, that they have that moment when they were with the president of the United States. If he met you and shook your hand, you got a hand-signed photo."

-- Fort Worth Star-Telegram

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