W. and Us

Dallas, home to the George W. Bush think tank. Let's think about that.

If we had the equivalent of a national sport just for Dallas, it would be "Tip-toe 'Round the Elephant." I do get why everybody debating the Bush library at SMU does it. The people against the library don't want to get drawn off their base into an argument they can't win. The people in favor of the library think the elephant is either a planter or a very large suitcase.

But it's an elephant. The Iraq war.

In an otherwise thoughtful defense of bringing the George W. Bush presidential center to SMU, Matthew Wilson, an associate professor of political science at SMU, said of the center, "...it will explore and advance policy proposals on issues of interest to President Bush."

Writing on the op-ed page of The Dallas Morning Newsrecently, Wilson went on to cite immigration reform, expanded free trade and global democratization as themes of the Bush presidency that will be of interest to scholars in the years to come.

I don't think so. Let me ask this bluntly: How much scholarly or general interest is there in Idi Amin's monetary policy? Long before anybody can get to the administrative details, history must address the butchery issue.

Is the Iraq war of a fabric with the American history of warfare? Or does the fact that we initiated a war against a nation that had not attacked us place the Iraq war in a dark category of its own? We see Democrats like Hillary Clinton trying to parse their patriotism now by speaking as if the holocaust in Iraq is the fault of the Iraqis, but what if that's bullshit?

These bombs that kill 150 human beings at a time, that send children flying from apartments and litter the pavement with burned skulls: What if the conclusion of history is that these events would not have taken place if George W. Bush had not decided to launch this war?

And what about us? What if, on careful examination, history concludes that Bush/Rove were able to knit together the overwhelming support we gave them at the outset of this war by a subliminal manipulation of our own anti-Arab, anti-Muslim xenophobia?

Afghanistan was war. The Taliban sheltered bin Laden. But Iraq is not Afghanistan.

The questions around Bush and Iraq are going to be whether Iraq was war or holocaust. I don't draw any direct parallel here between Iraq and the Nazi Holocaust, which stands unique in human history. But man can make other human holocausts—terrible mass murder expressing only evil, not any legitimate national interest.

I don't know on which side of the line the answer will fall. But I do know what the question is. Long before history develops a big interest in George W. Bush's immigration policy, historians will have to labor long and hard on the question of whether Bush was the white Idi Amin.

It's that question, more than any other, that brings us slam into the SMU presidential center. Here in Dallas we may think we see a familiar pattern. Local oilman Ray Hunt quietly slips $25 million into the deal to help SMU assemble the requisite real estate. The Dallas Morning News starts things off a few weeks ago with a cornball editorial referring to SMU faculty as "profs," scoffing at them for being nervous nellies about a plum tourist attraction for Big D.

But you and I will make a huge mistake if we try to grasp this as a local issue. Sure, Ray Hunt is the dude who gets Dallas City Hall to give him those multimillion-dollar tax breaks he doesn't really need for his local real estate ventures. But Ray Hunt is also the owner of Hunt Oil, a dominant player in the oilfields of Yemen, home turf to the bin Laden clan.

Let me share with you a quote from my morning copy of The New York Times. Haydar Abdul Jabbar, a 28-year-old car mechanic, describing the mayhem of an enormous suicide bomb attack in the Sadriya district of Baghdad, told the Times reporter: "I wish they would attack us with a nuclear bomb and kill us all, so we will rest, and anybody who wants the oil—which is the core of the problem—can come and get it."

As the world gets smaller, the universe of scholarly research becomes relatively tiny. Questions about the Bush presidency won't belong to American scholars. Some smart Iraqi scholar is going to want to come to the George W. Bush/Ray Hunt presidential center and dig into the question he heard howled in the blood-drenched marketplace of Sadriya. Was it for oil?

The people I have talked to on the SMU faculty are asking things that have nothing to do with a thumbs-up thumbs-down vote on George W. Bush but everything to do with scholarship. Will the Iraqi scholar who comes to Dallas seeking answers find a real repository of documents useful to his study or a stone wall, a kind of chain-mail fist in the face of scholarship?

The first, most difficult piece of this is Presidential Order 13233, which effectively reverses the presumption underlying the 1978 Presidential Records Act of a basic public right of access. In asserting a contrary right of permanent privilege, George W. Bush pointedly expanded the reach of this new privilege to include the entire Bush dynasty—his father's papers not only as president, for example, but as vice president.

It's an outrageous reach. Scholars and archivists around the country are beginning to suggest that SMU makes a whore of itself if it accepts the presidential center without first insisting that 13233 be vacated.

Then there is the matter of the think tank. Dubbed a "policy center," the think tank portion of the presidential center will openly pursue and promote the ideological goals of George W. Bush. In his op-ed piece in the Morning News, Wilson chastised critics of the think tank by saying, "To view these opportunities with skepticism is, I think, misguided. To squander them by rejecting the Bush Institute would be a tragic mistake."

Yeah, but we've got a little bit of a straw-man deal going here, maybe not deliberately but perhaps through a lack of communication. The SMU faculty I talked to were not necessarily opposed to think tanks generally but to specific aspects of this one.

As proposed, this think tank will be independent and outside the control of the university but will offer "joint chairs," so that fellows of the institute may also be SMU professors. Scholars, you know, are supposed to promote scholarship, not ideology. Scholarship, by its nature, has to be able to stand up to rigorous challenge, some might even say vicious challenge. An ideological think tank is about as closely related to true scholarship as an ad agency.

For some faculty and former faculty, the polemic mission of the think tank, fire-walled from university control but conjugally joined to the university through joint appointments, makes the whole thing totally unpalatable.

I asked William K. McElvaney, LeVan Professor Emeritus of Preaching and Worship at the SMU Perkins School of Theology, if the think tank proposal could be fixed.

First of all, he said, the joint appointments would have to be completely eliminated. "As long as the institute has the authority to espouse the ideology of this administration, that simply isn't acceptable to some of us."

I asked the same question of Dr. Kathleen A. Wellman, professor of history at SMU. She said the current proposal—a fire-walled think tank with joint appointments—is the worst of all possible worlds. But she said two fixes are possible:

"I think there are two fixes, and some people will be happy with one and not the other. I think what we have proposed now is the worst alternative.

"One possibility is the institute is truly independent, with no association with SMU, no possibility of joint appointments, and it just happens to be on SMU land. It's never allowed to say that there's any affiliation with SMU.

"The other possibility is that SMU, like most other institutions and universities with think tanks, has the think tank reporting to it and has academic representation on all committees, on all boards and has thorough oversight."

Dr. Susanne Johnson, associate professor of Christian education in the SMU Perkins School of Theology, cited the same three possibilities: 1) fire-walled but with conjugal privileges, as proposed; 2) totally independent and segregated; or 3) subordinate to the university.

"The second answer is my school of thought, and that is an institute that is neither at nor of Southern Methodist University but is rather situated nearby, completely fire-walled from the university. The think tank would then have to refer to itself as Dallas-based rather than SMU-based. To my mind that's a model where every stakeholder wins something."

Look, universities are weird places; academic politics can be nasty; it takes real courage for these people to express any degree of skepticism about the promotional schemes of the university president and board of trustees. So please don't let me conflate my own feelings about this with theirs.

The faculty I talked to really didn't want to talk much about the war or the Bush administration. They believe they have urgent scholarly issues that the university must address if it wants to maintain its academic prestige.

But I do want to put my own two cents in. We're about to confront an era when the entire world will seek an answer to the questions: Did a wrong-headed, immoral American policy produce a holocaust in Iraq? Was it for oil?

If the George W. Bush center comes here, the question comes with it. If the answer is an angry fist rather than an open heart, then that answer becomes the emblem of SMU and of this city.

There's your elephant.

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