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.
Like the pharaohs of ancient Egypt, each successive president undertakes the building of their political mausoleums in order to ensure their memory is preserved. Even more importantly, it allows them to begin, as President Clinton noted today at the Bush ceremony, the task of “rewriting history” in order to burnish their reputations.
That there is no going back from this recently acquired tradition is certain. But it is worthwhile at such a moment to ponder just how recently this change went into effect. Prior to the mid-20th century, ex-presidents actually did go back to being ordinary citizens without Secret Service details or staffs paid for by the taxpayers. As Matthew Algeo noted in his 2011 book Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip, it was possible as last as 1953 for an ex-president and his wife to actually jump in their car and drive around the country on their own.
Theodore Roosevelt was the exception to the rule of citizen ex-presidents. His celebrity after leaving the White House—as well as his status as a central figure in our politics until his death ten years later—was, however, unique. But it would be decades before another ex-president would be as big a deal as him.
The creation of what a previous generation called the “imperial presidency” changed not only the way our leaders govern but also the way they were regarded after their terms ended. As the size and power of the federal government grew after the Great Depression and World War II, the presidency grew with it, gradually making it impossible for his predecessors to even think about emulating Truman’s road trip.
Parallel to this was the way their libraries grew from document repositories to vast museums. Where the first presidential libraries were modest affairs, they have now become mammoth institutions that go along with the large lifestyles that are part and parcel of being an ex-president. If, as Bush noted today, Alexander Hamilton feared ex-presidents would be ghosts that would haunt our politics, they are today exalted pensioners more akin to royalty than anything else.
Though they were almost all members of society’s elite in one way or another, this is something the Founders never intended to happen in the republic they created. The notion of a permanent political ruling class of this sort is not just antithetical to democracy in principle but inspires the sort of resentment of politicians that leads to the cynicism with which so many Americans view those involved in public service.
It is a given that these libraries will only get bigger and bigger with each passing president. If the Bush 43 library dwarfs some of the early presidential libraries, one can only imagine the humongous edifice that will be erected to gratify the ego and the hubris of his successor by his adoring followers.
The only possible antidote to this trend is the spirit of humility with which George W. Bush opened his library today. He rightly called it a tribute to the people of the United States more than to those that served them. If we can truly make these libraries temples of democracy rather than merely tributes to the presidents then perhaps we can hold onto some vestige of the founders’ ideas. If, as the saying goes, any American can grow up to be president, then perhaps we can also return to the concept that ex-presidents are just Americans and not retired kings or queens.