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Historians ask school to reject presidential library unless Bush voids privacy order

The Dallas Morning News recently published quite a thorough article about the controversy surrounding Southern Methodist University (SMU) and their proposal to build/host the George W. Bush Presidential Library and policy institute. In a growing storm, the Society of American Archivists (SAA) has called on the University to reject the Bush library “unless the administration reverses an executive order that gives former presidents and their heirs the right to keep White House papers secret in perpetuity.” Especially worrisome for SAA and other library and academic groups is a provision allowing a president’s heirs to assert claims of executive privilege after his death, with no time limit.

SMU finds itself in the middle of a high-stakes battle for access to presidential records. After Bush signed Executive Order 13233, a still-pending lawsuit was brought by a group including the Society of American Archivists, watchdog group Public Citizen, the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the American Political Science Association.

Please read to the end of the article, as it includes a concise description of the Presidential Records Act and how it was changed by the Bush EO.

“SMU pressed to fight Bush’s secrecy.” The Dallas Morning News. Monday, February 5, 2007. Todd J. Gillman.

President Bush’s library debate expands

We posted a story a few days ago about the controversy surrounding George W. Bush’s presidential library. Here is a follow-up story in Inside Higher ED. While faculty members at Southern Methodist University (SMU) are mobilizing to challenge the university’s plans to build President Bush’s library, scholars have begun a campaign against Bush’s executive order 13233 that extends the power that former presidents and their families have over their presidential papers, asking SMU to turn down the library as long as the executive order stays in place.

“I think this is very significant,” said Benjamin Hufbauer, an associate professor of art history at the University of Louisville and author of Presidential Temples: How Memorials and Libraries Shape Public Memory (University Press of Kansas). “They are raising the profile of an issue that gets to the heart of the profession.”

With the executive order in place, Hufbauer said, it isn’t fair for SMU to argue that a great scholarly resource will be placed on its campus. “People say that the archive is the most valuable part of it. That’s where you can hopefully get to historical truth,” Hufbauer. “But if you don’t have all the papers, instead you have just a museum of political propaganda.”

The fight over a presidential library

Editorial Observer: The George W. Bush Library: Scholarly Mecca or $500 Million Oxymoron?. Dorothy Samuels, New York Times, 1/28/07.

Here’s an interesting little tidbit in today’s NYT about Southern Methodist University (SMU) — where Laura Bush sits on the Board of Trustees — and their plan to host the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Policy Institute (similar to the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace at Stanford University). There is growing concern within the SMU community that hosting Bush’s library is not in keeping with the university’s scholarly mission, governmental integrity and the rule of law.

On 1/12/07, 68 theologians, professors and other past and present faculty members, citing complaints about President Bush’s poor marks on civil liberties, the environment, gay rights and the war in Iraq, sent the university president a letter questioning whether visions of the library were “consistent with the school’s religious and academic values.” (“A Discordant Chorus Questions Visions for a Bush Library at Southern Methodist.” Ralph Blumenthal, NYT 1/14/07 Subscription required to access the archives).

Samuels, the NYT editorial observer, is calling on the SMU trustees (hopefully Laura will recuse herself!) to withhold the final OK unless two basic conditions are met:

  1. SMU should insist that Mr. Bush rescind Executive Order 13233, his 2001 directive that limits access to the records of former US Presidents.
  2. The trustees should insist on disclosure of contributions to the library complex.

I think Samuels has the right idea. Nobody wants Bush’s papers to end up in a black hole like the Nixon library, a private institute outside the NARA presidential library system where historians have struggled for years to gain access (see this article from the National Security Archives for more). Bush’s papers should be under the control of a university in order to assure the widest public access and analysis by scholars. But she’s also correct in calling for the university to set these conditions. What are the odds of Bush rescinding EO 13233?!