The George W. Bush Presidential Library sits on a 23-acre stretch of land on the east side of Southern Methodist University’s campus. For a building with the title of “presidential library,” a lot about this president and his presidency is missing. Missing is the Presidential Daily Briefing delivered to President Bush on August 6, 2001 entitled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US”; missing is the infamous “Mission Accomplished” banner from May 1, 2003; missing is any reference to Bush’s push for a Constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.
The recent talk of locating Barack Obama’s presidential library at the University of Chicago has raised concerns over the consequences of bringing what has historically been an inherently partisan and revisionist institution to a university that prides itself on objective inquiry. At the center of these concerns is the question of whether the obvious scholarly and practical benefits of having a presidential library on campus would outweigh the potential compromises that such an institution would impose, and whether those compromises can coexist with the University’s broader atmosphere of free and open discourse.
Each aspect of the University of Chicago should embody its unifying ideal: that Socratic discussion is vital to furthering knowledge and maintaining intellectual honesty. More abstractly, the goal of academia should be to rigorously test and analyze an array of ideas and opinions. Bringing a presidential library to the University would represent a drastic departure from these academic principles. Granted, the wealth of historical documents that would be available to the University would serve as an extension of our “Life of the Mind”; indeed, presidential libraries contain an abundance of information with respect to the office of the presidency, the person who occupies that office, and our nation during an important time in its history. Those historical documents, however, are carefully chosen and presented from the perspective of what the President and his political allies want us to understand as the truth. One cannot exercise scholarly, objective inquiry if the available information is confined to a specific viewpoint. In a library like the Regenstein, students have access to a variety of viewpoints; in a presidential library, that diversity is lacking. As such, our principles of free inquiry and critical analysis are compromised.
Former President Bill Clinton addressed this concern best when speaking to the crowd at the opening of the George W. Bush Presidential Library in 2013: “[The Bush Presidential Library] was the latest, grandest example of the eternal struggle of former presidents to rewrite history.” We have no reason to believe that President Obama’s library would prove to be substantively different than previous presidential libraries, regardless of any efforts by the University to align the institution with its values. Given the Obama administration’s reputation for insularity and aggressive image protection—marked by a reticent cabinet and a sometimes antagonistic relationship with the press, among other things—it would not be surprising if the information that is available through the library is rigorously filtered and framed so as to project a particular image. That is what presidential libraries are made for—they are actively partisan, ideological institutions dedicated to bolstering the legacy of the President and his administration. In response to criticism of the Clinton Presidential Library for allegedly glossing over the political nature of important but unflattering periods of the Clinton administration, the designers of the library acknowledged this very fact, asserting that “[t]his is the way the president wanted to see his legacy defined.”
Susan Sher, senior adviser to President Zimmer, spoke of how “[t]he City of Chicago and the South Side in particular could benefit greatly from the cultural opportunities and economic development that a presidential library could bring.” This is true, but these benefits are not exclusive to affiliating the presidential library with our University, nor does my case in opposition to such an affiliation preclude locating it in the greater Hyde Park area.
The University of Chicago would undoubtedly enjoy the prestige and public relations benefits associated with housing the Obama presidential library, but at what cost? For over a century, the University of Chicago has made an effort to engender an atmosphere of free, open inquiry; as stewards of this University, how can we justify supporting an institution that is largely antithetical to these very principles?
Andrew Young is a first-year in the College.