The following is from the March 15, 2008, edition of The Dallas Morning News.
By BRENDAN McKENNA
The Dallas Morning News
WASHINGTON – Compassionate conservative. September 11. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein. The Global War on Terror. Hurricane Katrina. No Child Left Behind.
How to showcase these and other defining moments of President Bush's tenure now falls to Dan Murphy and his design firm, the PRD Group, retained by Bush advisers as the "interpretive planner" for his library and museum at Southern Methodist University.
This is not the bricks and mortar but rather the public face of the Bush legacy – crafting exhibits that try to balance the tale of a Texas oilman who rose to the nation's highest office and the mistakes and miscalculations that have left him deeply unpopular with many Americans.
Besides fashioning a narrative that meets Mr. Bush's approval, PRD has to package it in an innovative and appealing way for the tens of thousands of expected visitors.
The Virginia-based firm has not worked on other presidential libraries, and its role in the Bush project had not been disclosed until inquiries by The Dallas Morning News. But it has been involved since last summer, brandishing local ties rooted in the creation of the Texas State History Museum in Austin – which Mr. Bush dedicated in 2001 in the name of his political mentor, the late Bob Bullock, former lieutenant governor.
Mr. Murphy, who founded PRD, said his task is to do more than just recount events.
"We're not really just trying to put a front cover and back cover around eight years of a presidency," he said. "We have a much bigger story about America and about the history of the presidency and about the American experience. ... We've got a great, great, great story."
Mr. Murphy said he isn't ready to say what he might use in the museum to highlight the Republican president's life, works and policies.
And the main architect, Robert A.M. Stern of New York, dean of the Yale School of Architecture, said his plans are only in the initial stages, with at least two buildings – one for the library and museum and the other for a policy institute – slated at SMU Boulevard and Central Expressway.
Many presidential libraries "are big and bombastic. Quite a few have been dull. With Bush, there will be no bombast or boredom," Mr. Stern said in an interview with Architect magazine.
Bob Rogers, designer of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, said museums are no longer just places to store a president's stuff.
What will make the Bush project fascinating are the themes it picks to link politics and history, he said. "This is potentially the chance to see the first eight years of the 21st century from the point of view of a person ... who had his hand on the levers of control."
Opposing a 'shrine'
But Benjamin Hufbauer, an assistant professor at the University of Louisville and author of Presidential Temples: How Memorials and Libraries Shape Public Memory, said he's concerned when a president directly crafts the presentation.
"You basically have a shrine to the president ... an extended campaign commercial," he said.
The Bush complex is expected to open in five years, costing $250 million in private donations. It will be administered by the National Archives and Records Administration, which Mr. Hufbauer said has a greater obligation to the truth than what some presidents are willing to lay bare.
From the pressures of Vietnam for President Johnson to President Clinton's sex scandal and impeachment, presidential library curators have been scrutinized for how they deal with such troubles.
"You need to watch out and not let the president call all the shots," Mr. Hufbauer said, suggesting that SMU historians might help develop a "more sophisticated museum," particularly on the Iraq war.
Mr. Stern, in his interview, said he knows pundits have derided the library as a wasteful memorial. But he dismissed that, saying: "Most presidents are controversial and unpopular at times, but each of these people is the president, and each deserves a library."
Mark Langdale, new chief of the George W. Bush Presidential Library Foundation, told The News that Mr. Bush's handling of the war will be significant in the museum.
"The Iraq war is clearly going to be an important component of that, and it's going to be dealt with upfront," Mr. Langdale said.
"Ideas about what [is] important or what was significant in an administration tend to evolve. We want to make sure and maintain some flexibility because this institution will be here for hundreds of years."
As far as touchy subjects, Mr. Murphy said, "If there is controversy, that's part of the story." He said his firm's work on segregation and other civil rights exhibits at the Alabama State History Museum recognizes "that at different times, different people had different attitudes. The way to understand things as they were is to let those people speak for themselves."
An evolving legacy
However Mr. Bush is viewed now, that probably will change over time, said Mr. Rogers, of the Lincoln library in Springfield, Ill.
He said Mr. Lincoln, before his assassination, was among the most reviled presidents. A "nightmarish" collection of cartoons depicts him as a murderer and the devil.
The anti-Lincoln barrage apparently impressed Mr. Bush when he toured the facility at its opening in 2005.
"They couldn't get him past that room [of cartoons]. You could imagine his wheels turning ... thinking to himself, 'Wow they were even worse on Abe. And Abe recovered in history,' " Mr. Rogers said. "You've got to believe that's the story he's hoping for."
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