The following is from the Jan. 20, 2007, edition of The New York Times.
By JAMES F. HOLLIFIELD
When I was a graduate student at Duke in 1981, the university was faced with a difficult decision: Should it accept the papers of its law school alumnus, Richard M. Nixon, and build a library and museum named for one of the most controversial presidents in American history? Some within the university said that to accept the papers would be to embrace a failed president who resigned in disgrace to avoid impeachment. Others argued that the documents would be a treasure trove for future scholars seeking to understand what happened during the turbulent years of the Nixon presidency.
At the time I had the luxury of watching this drama unfold from the sidelines. Today I do not. As the director of a center for political studies at Southern Methodist University, I was invited to sit on an academic planning committee for the George W. Bush presidential library. By agreeing to serve on this committee, I took a stand in favor of Southern Methodist University’s bid for the library, in part because I think Duke made a mistake in not accepting the Nixon library.
George W. Bush — like Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter in their day — is a controversial president for difficult times. But we must put partisanship aside and strive for historical perspective. We must consider the importance of having presidential libraries to help generations of scholars understand the times in which we live, and to inform future policy debates.
Whether one supports or opposes the Bush policies, there is no question that they have been momentous for the country and the world. Precisely because of the controversial nature of this presidency, the question of how George W. Bush made his decisions begs for scholarly research and discourse. The library will be a gold mine for scholars, and its location on a university campus symbolizes the need for study.
At Duke more than 20 years ago and at Southern Methodist today, opponents of such libraries have said that by building a presidential library and creating schools or institutes, a university compromises its values and endorses the policies of the president whose papers it accepts. I do not think this is the case. It is legitimate for anyone to criticize the president and his policies, but it is presumptuous for us as scholars to say that we know in advance and with certainty what the legacy of a sitting president will be.
Campuses are good places to situate presidential libraries because universities are vital to the American marketplace of ideas, and they are bulwarks of our free society. They can serve as repositories of archives from which we will learn and grow as a nation. But the faculty is a university’s heart and soul, and faculty members are not disconnected from the politics of the moment.
As bad as the situation may seem today, back in 1971, when the University of Texas dedicated a library and school named for Lyndon Johnson, the country was in even greater turmoil. A storm of controversy raged over the Johnson papers. But I think the University of Texas made the right decision to accept the papers and build the library and school.
Southern Methodist University should do the same. Yes, former presidents are interested in polishing their legacies, and universities must be careful to remain nonpartisan and protect freedom of inquiry. But we must also take the long view, and that means building institutions that will serve generations to come, giving historians the chance to do their work.
James F. Hollifield, a professor of political science and the director of the Tower Center for Political Studies at Southern Methodist University, is the author of the forthcoming book “The Emerging Migration State.”
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