By David Greenberg
With the title of his 1980 book, the journalist Sidney Blumenthal coined a term that has entered the political lexicon: “The Permanent Campaign.” The phrase denotes the blurring of the line in modern times between campaigning and governing. Presidents, of course, have always made decisions with an eye on their popularity. But with the advent of television, polling, and professional consultants, presidents of the 1970s and ’80s—Nixon, Carter, and Reagan in particular—upped the ante by devoting the full arsenal of modern electioneering tools not just to winning office but to holding office as well.
Recently, the permanent campaign has added yet another stage—a final frontier. This is the fight for history, centered on the presidents’ libraries. The presidential libraries date from 1939, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt conceived his as a repository for his public papers, to be built with private funds and run by public officials. Since then, chief executives have sought to outdo their predecessors by entombing their archives in extravagant, self-memorializing shrines. These museums extend the permanent campaign by utilizing the same public relations techniques as a race for the White House—and lately requiring comparable fundraising efforts to boot.
Fittingly, Nixon and Carter were the ex-presidents who most assiduously sought to revive their badly damaged reputations, through their libraries and other activities. George W. Bush has taken this campaign for history to a new level. As the New York Daily News reported last fall, Bush’s team has imagined the most grandiose presidential library yet. His crack fundraisers are aiming to rake in a record-breaking $500 million for his personal temple, passing the cattle hat to “wealthy heiresses, Arab nations and captains of industry,” as the newspaper put it. For the site, Bush chose Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, the First Lady’s alma mater.
Maybe Bush feared the reaction if he sought to build his library at Yale, his own undergraduate stomping grounds. But if he was hoping for smoother sailing in deep-red Texas, he miscalculated. The news of the museum’s impending arrival hardly went well on the S.M.U. campus. Universities, after all, are supposed to promote disinterested research, and the gilded histories that tend to adorn the presidential galleries don’t exactly pulse with evenhandedness.
Making matters worse, the Bush team stipulated that the university should host a “Bush Institute.” This proposed policy shop, a spokesman for the president’s camp told the Daily News, would hire right-wing scholars or journalists and “give them money to write papers and books favorable to the president’s policies.”
The S.M.U. faculty, led by two theology professors, Bill McElvaney and Susanne Johnson, protested. So did the student newspaper, the Daily Campus. But after a flurry of reports over the winter, the issue abruptly dropped out of the national news. Perhaps the seeming determination of S.M.U. President R. Gerald Turner to bring the library to campus, willy-nilly, sapped the opposition’s resolve. Perhaps the news media are simply operating as Walter Lippmann famously described: like the beam of a searchlight that illuminates one thing for a passing moment but quickly moves on to something else.
Whatever the case, the issue deserves continued attention. In mid-April, the S.M.U. faculty senate overwhelmingly passed two resolutions affirming the independence of any proposed Bush Institute from the university proper. And earlier this month the Daily Campus named Professors McElvaney and Johnson “S.M.U. Persons of the Year”—a vote of support for their efforts.
And make no mistake: the students and faculty are right to insist that S.M.U. disassociate itself from the think tank. Arguably the most distressing pattern of the Bush administration has been its jettisoning of long-established standards in virtually all areas of knowledge. From U.S. attorneys to intelligence analysts, environmental scientists to the Washington press corps, Bushies dismiss non-partisan experts as liberals and thus ripe for replacement by conservative partisans. Areas of scholarly inquiry from biology to medicine to law to economics are routinely politicized. We can expect the proposed Bush Institute at S.M.U. to treat history the same way, setting aside the norms and practices of the scholarly community in the interest of generating pseudo-research.
Ironically, this intensification of the final stage of the permanent campaign comes at a moment when changes are afoot at the presidential museum previously known for most egregiously distorting the record: the Nixon Library. Because Nixon had tried to destroy and abscond with his papers, Congress awarded ownership of them (and the papers of subsequent presidents) to the government. The museum that Nixon then built with funds from his wealthy friends remained outside the family of official libraries—a pariah every bit as much as the man it venerated. It could falsify history—by inaccurately suggesting, for example, that the Democrats wanted to impeach Nixon in order to put House Speaker Carl Albert in the White House—but it had to do so on its own dime.
Now, though, due to legislation passed by the Republican-controlled Congress and Bush in 2004, the Nixon Library is going legit. The law allows the Nixon Library to get government funds and official recognition, but—ironically—it will also force the institution to come under the direction of a real historian. The director-designate, Timothy J. Naftali, formerly of the University of Virginia, has already ripped out the notorious Watergate exhibit.
Indeed, even back when the Nixon Library was still shameless about whitewashing Nixon’s crimes, public pressure forced it to impose certain limits. When the library opened in 1990, the then-director, Hugh Hewitt (now a right-wing radio host), announced that he would exclude insufficiently pro-Nixon researchers. An outcry ensued and he was overruled and relieved of his job.
In contrast, the powers at S.M.U. have not full-throatedly condemned the idea of a Bush institute that would generate historical propaganda. For them to do so will require an outpouring of support that can only be triggered by sustained media attention. National journalists, it seems, will have to redirect their searchlight beams onto the doings of the faculty meetings, campus newspaper editorials, and administration boardrooms at S.M.U. History is at stake.
David Greenberg, an assistant professor of history and journalism at Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, N.J., is the author of three books, “Nixon’s Shadow,” “Presidential Doodles” and, most recently, “Calvin Coolidge.”