DALLAS—As former President George W. Bush prepares to officially open his presidential library on Thursday, a question arises as it has for his predecessors: How objective will it be about his time in the White House?
Bush left office five years ago as one of the most unpopular presidents in history, his poll numbers weighed down by public discontent over his handling of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and worries about the economy.
But the former president wanted to take the controversies about his presidency head-on, say several former aides who worked closely with him on the library. One way of addressing the challenge is an interactive exhibit allowing visitors to see what it was like for him to make decisions as leader of the free world. People will hear information Bush was given by aides, then be asked to make their own choices. Afterward, the former president's image will appear on a screen to explain what decision he ultimately made and why.
“He really wants people to go in there and get a sense of what it was like to be president during that time and to use that to make an informed decision about his presidency,” said Karen Hughes, a longtime Bush adviser.
But Bush’s museum is likely to face scrutiny over what version of history he’s telling—especially with his time in office still fresh in the minds of many Americans.
He’s not the only one who has faced this dilemma. When former President Bill Clinton’s library opened in Little Rock, Ark., in 2004, the library was criticized for not devoting more space to what some at the time believed was the biggest issue of his presidency: the scandal of his inappropriate relationship with a former White House intern that ultimately lead to the House voting to impeach him.
While the goal of presidential libraries is to be more focused on history than politics, those involved in creating them say it’s unreasonable to think they won’t be influenced by a former president’s point of view—especially as libraries are increasingly seen as vehicles through which former leaders try to shape legacies.
“Bush wants to people to know the kind of decisions he had to make in the course of his presidency and give [a rationale] for why he made those decisions,” said Mark Updegrove, director of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, Texas, who is also working on a book about Bush and his father, former President George H.W. Bush.
“There is great value in trying to understand why Bush did what he did,” Updegrove added. “You don’t have to agree with him, but there’s value in trying to understand his perspective.”
Aides say Bush and his wife, Laura, were “heavily” involved in the creation of the library’s exhibits, though they haven’t said exactly how hands-on the former president was.
Skip Rutherford, a longtime friend and adviser to Clinton who led the 42nd president’s library effort, recalls ordering Clinton to do a “brain dump” with the people who designed exhibits while Clinton was still president.
“I basically said to him, ‘Just talk to them about your successes and failures, what you thought you did well, where you thought you felt short, your best day and your worst day, what you would have done differently,’” Rutherford recalled in an interview with Yahoo News.
“Bring as many Diet Cokes as you need,” he recalled telling Clinton.
A few days later, Clinton spent more than three hours talking to the designers of his library, doing just what Rutherford had asked. And not surprisingly, his discussion with the group was very detailed. Clinton "was passing on names of people they should talk to and recalling pictures of certain meetings he had that could be used,” Rutherford said. “He has an incredible memory.”
In some ways, Bush’s library will be the first draft of history about his administration. Not unlike other museums, presidential libraries often go through renovations and exhibit changes over the years, as history gains a better understanding of a certain presidency.
When the LBJ library opened in 1971, the former president asked staffers to include an exhibit on the Vietnam War and to quickly work to assemble and declassify his presidential papers related to it, in hopes the public would come to understand his thinking behind the events that clouded his final days in office.
Over the years, that exhibit has been updated—most recently with a $10 million renovation, which expanded the section on LBJ and Vietnam to include more perspectives, including his efforts to gain input from members of Congress and how media coverage was affecting his decision-making.
But the exhibit also plays up LBJ’s work on domestic issues, including civil rights, education and health care—issues largely overshadowed by controversies over Vietnam.
In that vein, Updegrove sees parallels between LBJ and Bush, who designed a library that also tries to call attention to domestic accomplishments he and his aides believe were overshadowed by the war. Updegrove says the Iraq War, not unlike Vietnam for LBJ, is likely to cloud the public’s assessment of Bush for “many years to come,” especially since Iraq's fate is still largely unknown.
By then, Bush will likely want to renovate his library—just as the other living presidents have done in order to keep up with modern technology and evolving public opinion about issues in their presidency.
At the Clinton library, staffers there are waiting to see what Clinton has to say after seeing the new Bush library.
“Everybody thinks he’s going to go down to Dallas and come back and say, ‘We need this, we need to do that,'” Rutherford says. By contrast, George H.W. Bush pushed for a major overhaul of his library after attending the Clinton opening in 2004.
“Everybody is bracing for when [Clinton] comes back from Dallas.”