George W library and museum beats about the Bush

Opinion: a monument to the 43rd president of the United States offers a selective presentation of his life

Former US president George W Bush: as President Obama tries to escape the shadow of the Bush presidency, so too is George W trying to escape the shadow of the Bush presidency. Photograph: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Former US president George W Bush: as President Obama tries to escape the shadow of the Bush presidency, so too is George W trying to escape the shadow of the Bush presidency. Photograph: Mark Wilson/Getty Images


Do we dare to hope that the Bush administration is finally at an end?

After four years of bending the constitution, the constitutional law professor now in the White House is trying to unloose the Gordian knot of W’s martial and moral overreaches after 9/11. Safely re-elected, President Barack Obama at long last spoke bluntly about the Faustian deals struck by his predecessor, some of them cravenly continued by his own administration.

In a speech at the National Defence University, Obama talked about how we “compromised our basic values” and he concluded with a slap at W: “Our victory against terrorism won’t be measured in a surrender ceremony at a battleship or a statue being pulled to the ground.”

On the eve of the president’s speech, I was at the George W Bush Presidential Library and Museum here, watching the film of Saddam’s statue being pulled to the ground.

It’s remarkable that Obama is trying to escape the shadow of the Bush presidency just as W is trying to escape the shadow of the Bush presidency. Browsing the library, you wonder if these two presidents are complete opposites after all, as you see how history was shaped by an arrogant, press-averse, father-fixated, history-obsessed, strangely introverted chief executive.

Commoner’s touch
Robert Draper, the author of Dead Certain: the Presidency of George W Bush, perused the library with me and observed: “So 43 grew up entitled but could display a commoner’s touch, while 44 grew up hardscrabble yet developed this imperial mien. The former is defined by incuriosity, the latter by self-absorption. One is a late-blooming artist, the other a precocious writer. They can each make you kind of miss the other.”

Obama’s compelling speech on Thursday was his way of saying he didn’t want the seductive but morally dicey drone programme he inherited from W to define his own presidency. The way it had been going, one of the killer robots, hanging from the ceiling, might have made a fitting centrepiece for an Obama library.

W’s library highlights his role in launching the “global war on terror”, an Orwellian phrase designed to conflate the sins of Osama, who was responsible for 9/11, and the sins of Saddam, who was not. That was the fatal mistake and hallmark of the Bush era. W, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld declared war on a tactic, stoked fear as a smoke screen and treated pre-emptive attacks as just.

Better late than never, Obama brought his lapidary logic and legal cautions to bear. “Neither I nor any president can promise the total defeat of terror,” he said. “We will never erase the evil that lies in the hearts of some human beings nor stamp out every danger to our open society.”

Terror failure
Conservatives can honk, as Sen Saxby Chambliss did, that Obama’s speech “will be viewed by terrorists as a victory”. But this president has killed more top al-Qaeda operatives than Bush did. While W’s bullhorn vow after 9/11 to catch the “people who knocked these buildings down” plays every few minutes at his library, I couldn’t find any photos of Osama or acknowledgment of Bush’s failure to catch him. Obama’s library will have a wing for that feat.

You could fill an entire other library with what’s not in W’s. Cheney and Rummy have been largely disappeared, and it is Condi Rice who narrates the 9/11 video. You won’t see the iconic “Mission Accomplished” photo, or that painful video in which W keeps reading The Pet Goat to children after learning that America is under attack, or the notorious “flyover” photo of a desultory Bush jetting from Crawford to the White House and looking through the window of Air Force One at Katrina’s devastation.

Decision Points Theatre – a whiny “Well, you try being the Decider” enterprise – lets you make the decisions after getting taped briefings on W’s crises from actors playing experts. But it is rigged with so many false binary options that the visitors I voted with ended up agreeing with Bush’s patently wrong calls on Iraq and Katrina.

Mostly, aside from the word “freedom” reverberating endlessly, we see the kinder, gentler W, conjured by Laura the Librarian. The once-shielded twins are ubiquitous, as is Barney. (An interactive game lets you help Barney find his ball.)

The big display on W’s stellar record on Aids in Africa features a letter from the president on White House stationery with the salutation, “Yo Bono!”

You can be forgiven for thinking you’ve wandered into the Gore presidential library when you come upon a wall devoted to protection of the ocean and odes to “vital wetlands” and “marine habitats”. Who knew W was passionately on the side of the humphead parrotfish?

Proving the library is more a monument to Laura’s artful airbrushing than W’s artless leadership, there’s a swank Café 43 with fancier fare than W’s cherished peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and a gift shop featuring Laura’s favourite books, from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov to Truman Capote’s Music for Chameleons . W missed a bet not selling reproductions of his charming nude self-portraits and Barney paintings on posters, T-shirts and dog bowls. Far more interesting than packets of Texas bluebonnet seeds.