The ceremony opening George W. Bush’s presidential library and museum today in Dallas is the kind of thing that seems to bring out the best in all of current and former leaders. The gracious speeches praising the 43rd president from former presidents Carter and Clinton as well as from President Obama were in the best tradition of patriotism and bipartisanship. The institution they are dedicating today is, by all accounts, a magnificent achievement and will make a genuine contribution to our understanding of his time in office and to American history.
Just as important, the library’s opening seems to herald the beginning of a sea change in public opinion about Bush. He was badly treated by the media and, along with Vice President Cheney, became a piñata for both the chattering classes and popular culture and it may be that this day is the start of a reassessment of his presidency.
Yet there is also something slightly off-putting about the creation of what can only be described as yet another presidential pyramid. If at the beginning of the history of our republic, it was understood our presidents would, like the Roman hero Cincinnatus go home to their plows and resume life as an ordinary citizen of the republic, we now treat former commanders-in-chief as if they were dowager monarchs, each entitled to their own private court. The creation of the presidential library system, which started as an appropriate and necessary method for storing the papers of each administration, has become an excuse for the building of great monuments to each chief executive.