DALLAS - For Southern Methodist University, the alma mater of first lady Laura Bush and a proud, nearly century-old institution, the prospect of housing the George W. Bush Presidential Library would seemingly be an honor.Yet the possible advent of the Bush library - and especially an ideological think tank planned as part of it - has split the SMU faculty, feeding a debate that simmers beneath the serenity of the leafy campus. At an institution dedicated to scholarly achievement and academic freedom, many fear the work of the Bush Institute would forever associate SMU with a right-wing political agenda.
The vision of a Bush-backed think tank at a campus owned by the United Methodist Church has exposed emotional rifts within a church already divided over the war in Iraq. Bishops and other clergy critical of the pre-emptive war and the administration's treatment of enemy combatants are protesting what they view as a memorial to Bush, a Methodist whose policies they say are "antithetical" to their teachings.
The Rev. C. Joseph Sprague, a recently retired Chicago-area Methodist bishop, calls the war and other Bush policies "antithetical to the Methodist movement." Sprague summed up the sentiment of several bishops protesting the Bush Institute.
"I am hesitant to see Southern Methodist University welcoming the institute of a Methodist who has been so contrary to the teachings of the Methodist Church," he said. "It will do nothing but perpetuate the kind of neocon thinking of this administration which has taken both this nation and the world in the wrong direction."
University leaders are in final negotiations with a cluster of the president's closest friends and family over the library and institute, which they say they hope to conclude "within weeks, rather than months."
Library planners - including Donald Evans, former commerce secretary and a longtime Texan friend of President Bush ; ex-Chief of Staff Andrew Card; and Bush's brother Marvin - also have made it clear they have not ruled out Baylor University in Waco. That has created a palpable sense of unease in the red-brick halls that circle SMU's campus green.
"I'm leaning heavily toward SMU," Bush said in a recent Dallas TV interview. "I understand there are some who have reservations, and my admonition to them, or my advice to them, is just understand that a library, an institute, would enhance education. It would be a place for interesting discussion."
Still, the George W. Bush Presidential Library Foundation has described the think tank affiliated with the library as "an institute inspired by the principles of George W. Bush's administration."
Matthew Wilson, a political science professor at SMU, said he believes most of the 609-member faculty would welcome Bush's library as a boon.
"It's more a question of raising the profile and reputation of SMU as an institution," Wilson said of the 11,000-student school.
But Benjamin Johnson, a history professor who holds office hours inside old Dallas Hall - a tall-pillared edifice topped with a dome and stained-glass cap that was all SMU had when it opened in 1915 - worries that SMU's reputation will be tarnished.
"I'm concerned that we're going to be judged by the things this institute does," Johnson said. "These guys are so divisive, so unpopular, it seems to me really dangerous to go for an arrangement that could turn the face of your university over to them without any controls over them."
Whether it lands at SMU - which houses the Bushes' own Highland Park United Methodist Church on the edge of campus - or at Baylor, the world's biggest Southern Baptist university and down the road from the Bush ranch near Crawford - the Bush library certainly will be unique. It is to become the 12th privately built and federally administered presidential library.
Since Franklin Roosevelt sketched a Dutch colonial plan for the first federally run presidential library, opened in 1941 on the grounds of his home in Hyde Park, N.Y., the size and cost of these monuments to presidential legacy and ego have only swelled.
Roosevelt's cost $40,000. Bill Clinton's in Little Rock, Ark., cost $165 million. The rumored ambition of the Bush library complex is to raise an endowment of more than $500 million.
And while private donors have erected the libraries and the museums that accompany them, taxpayers bear the cost of administering the facilities, which totals more than $40 million annually.
They have become "a cathedral to the presidency," in the words of one architect of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum in Austin. Johnson's certainly is: At eight stories and 85 feet tall, it is 5 feet taller than the Lincoln Memorial. The edifices are, as Johnson biographer Robert Caro put it, "America's pyramids."
Some are linked to universities. Johnson's and Clinton's have spawned schools of public policy. Jimmy Carter has dedicated his Atlanta center to election reform and humanitarian causes. But none has what Bush eyes in Texas - an ideological think tank on a college campus.
"It is taking these temples to presidential egos to a whole new level," says Benjamin Hufbauer, an art history assistant professor at the University of Louisville and author of "Presidential Temples."
"They are looking for something that will continue Bush's policies and generate the next generation of Republican philosophy," Hufbauer said. "It'll probably have a large enough endowment that, at least for the rest of the 21st century, this will be one of the major Republican think tanks."
Peace activists within the United Methodist Church worry that the Bush Institute will promote the rationale for war and other policies that the administration has fostered. In fall 2005, 95 Methodist bishops signed "a statement of conscience" opposing the Iraq war.
"It is the war, no question," said Sprague, who retired as Methodist bishop of northern Illinois in 2004. "If it were not for the war, and the attendant behavior in the midst of that conflict, I would not have raised my voice."
Andrew Weaver, a Methodist clergyman in New York who has joined Sprague and others in war protests outside Bush's ranch, said not only SMU but also the church stands to suffer.
"It'll be a Heritage Foundation with a cross on the door," Weaver said, referring to the conservative think tank.
It is perhaps not surprising that the president would choose this setting to immortalize his memory. Bush, who ran the Texas Rangers baseball team before running for governor of Texas, once lived in Dallas. His wife was trained as a librarian at SMU and is a trustee. The Bushes closed both presidential campaigns with rallies at SMU's Moody Coliseum.
The late Lamar Hunt, a Texas oilman who served on the university's board, was memorialized last winter in the same coliseum. His brother Ray, still an SMU trustee, has donated $36 million to buy land in an area where the university is considering locating the library.
Vice President Dick Cheney also has served on the SMU board. And in February, SMU's Dedman School of Law named Attorney General Alberto Gonzales an "honorary alumnus."
Weaver warned that if the institute is built, "They will pack this place with cronies of George."
Supporters of the library say that sort of opposition is overheated.
"This is nothing but speculative fantasy," said SMU's Wilson. He dismissed the notion of some Bush critics that "Karl Rove will be the head of the institute, or that it will be some sort of right-wing radical fringe institute.
"What we've been told is that it will be dedicated to studying issues and policy goals of interest to his administration," Wilson said, though he conceded, "There is no doubt that this is going to be a conservative-leaning institute."
The regional Methodist board has voted 10-4 to lease campus land for the library. But the faculty Senate recently split 13-13 over recommending a complete divide between the university and institute.
Some of the library's critics said they have been warned to hold their fire for the good of the university. "We're getting a clear message that it would be good if this debate stopped," said Johnson, the history professor.
If the library does land here, university officials remain confident that SMU will survive the debate, which they cast in terms of spirited academic discussion.
"We have a full spectrum of ideas," said Brad Cheves, SMU's vice president for development. "No one in this community has ever been shy to agree, and no one has ever been shy to disagree. And the institute won't change that."
© 2007, Chicago Tribune.