Thursday, September 17, 2015

Side Dish: George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum 9/4/15

When you’re a history geek, you’ll step into anything. Museums, libraries, birthplaces, gravesites, obscure patches of dirt: it’s all equal in the eyes of the historian, and personal judgments should never get in the way of inquiry and investigation. As I’m the sort of person who would drive sixteen hours to see the very alley where a famous figure once took a drunken piss, it was not too outrageous to suggest that while grinding our truckster’s tires to dust in search of mammoth bones, it might not be a bad idea to spend a few hours in a Shrine of Lies. I speak, of course, of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Dallas, Texas (located within the sprawling campus of Southern Methodist University). Fine, “lies” might be exaggerating the point by half, but “shrine” is more than apt. Hell, even that might be underdone. This is a coliseum. A world unto itself. The sun, the moon, and all the stars under heaven in service of a president’s monomaniacal vision. Both state-of-the-art and senses-staggering, this is a building whored out to singlemindedness. In that sense, it’s a presidential landmark like any other – Republican and Democrat alike – but given how fresh his reign of error remains, it’s impossible not to snicker while being wholly, utterly in awe.

Awe? At a Museum of Dubya? Yes ’m, with no apologies. From a purely aesthetic standpoint, this might be the most impressive building in America; a bloated, unabashed Greek temple set down right in the heart of Lone Star country, all with the one and only goal of kicking your ass. And while the mission in Iraq was not even remotely accomplished, it sure as shit was on this day. I all but registered as a Republican on the way out through the gift shop. My mouth was agape. My heart full. With every turn, I knew instinctively why so many turned to National Socialism. The cult of personality has rarely been so stunningly, beautifully rendered. From the opening marble to the closing rose garden, this is how it’s done. Not truth, per se, but naked glorification. As a nation, we may want for heroes, but here’s one without all the complexity and ambiguity so common to the modern type. Bush has been prepped, powdered, and coated in love. Served hot and wide-eyed, alongside a heaping helping of potato salad and baked beans to complete the metaphor. Even Goebbels himself may have tsk-tsked the presentation as a tad much.

The question remains: should a nation erect temples to mediocrity? Does every Chief Executive, by mere virtue of having been elected to the post, deserve a rock and roll celebration poolside, with beer and titties for all? I mean, the Dubya Experience is not, in the classical sense, a historical site. Rather, it is a privately-funded, rubber-stamped, wholly-authorized version of what remains a very contentious period of time in the recent past. We come not to learn, but defer to the party line. There are papers and records and emails about, but they’re conveniently in the back. We’re here for a show, and Lord Almighty, we are not disappointed. After walking through a metal detector (I thought he supported concealed weapons?), and paying no mind to the armed guards circling about as if waiting for any excuse – snide remark, conspiracy theory, utterance about the Florida recount – to pin your ass to the wall, visitors plunk down $16 a head (plus $7 for parking) and begin the journey. Thank the stars at least some of it is about baseball.

Yes, there’s an exhibit about baseball. Not entirely unexpected in a George W. Bush museum, given that he owned 3% of the Texas Rangers and always acted as if he himself plunked down the $800 million for the franchise. And while we’re at it, stop saying “you” traded Sammy Sosa. That’s the GM’s job, and you just put up your boots while eating nachos. I’m guessing the majority owners never even let you peek at the books. Still, the display - “Baseball: America’s Presidents, America’s Pastime” – is a fun, insightful ride through the game we all used to love before concussions and pigskins took over the joint. The presidents are transformed into jumbo-sized baseball cards (for example, John Adams has a packed statistical resume, while Benjamin Harrison was simply born, then died), and we see photos and artifacts that show each man’s dedication (or indifference) to the game. For example, Taft and Harding clearly loved the game. Hell, I imagine Warren G. would have been content to waste any number of afternoons that weren’t related to Teapot Dome. LBJ, on the other hand, or Carter, just look awkward, and I still suspect Reagan wasn’t entirely sure he wasn’t in some sequel to that Grover Cleveland Alexander movie.

Still, who couldn’t love all the signed balls and bats, as well as a letter from Don Larsen to Eisenhower, just after his perfect game, hoping Ike survived his massive heart attack? And who could blame me for wanting to steal that ball signed by every president since Carter? We also see Dubya’s “big pitch” during the post-9/11 World Series, a title which, one must recall, went not to New York, but Arizona, proving that God exists and he is NOT a Yankee fan. Even Dubya’s baseball card collection is included! It would be cute, except that the childish, aw-shucks appeals occurred when George was well past his 40th birthday. This little display is about as inspirational as learning that an elderly FDR still played with tinker toys. Which he did, so back off. Nevertheless, it’s a bit of fun before the fall, almost as if Cooperstown had added a new wing for the faithful. The organization is flawless, the presentation eye-catching, and all signals the undeniable maxim that while they’re shitty at running a government, Republicans sure do have the museum thing down cold. Sure, they botch wars and disaster responses, but who else could design such gorgeous, private-sector glass cases?

So after encountering a dynamic, holy shit ceiling with faces and names and lights and graphics, we enter the main event. The big time. Somehow, against all expectation, it involves 9/11. Oh sure, we get a few displays of happier times; those few months before the worst domestic attack since Pearl Harbor, when Bush giddily sent us refund checks to help explode the deficit, and the biggest thing on his plate was whether or not to use stem cells for research (shockingly, he said no). A little No Child Left Behind here, a false claim that the economy was running on all cylinders there, with nary a word of concern on the matter. But since there was but a single spring and summer of a Bush presidency without Dick Cheney’s war-inspired erection to obliterate the sun, nothing else in this museum could ever hope to compete. So, then, a wall of noise and flame. Actual pieces of the World Trade Center. An endless sea of names. The bullhorn. Without question, it’s a masterful presentation, and it’s enough to make you forget everything from 9/12 forward. But before you click your heels in salute, you remember. Iraq. The Patriot Act. The calls for obedience. Shock and Awe. Again, the museum gets it all right – how we felt, how we cried, and how we roared for revenge – but it’s precisely how good it appears that we should always remember how it actually wasn’t.

There are interactive displays, detailed maps, and so many eye-popping, colorful blips that it’s easy to forget that there could ever hope to be another side to the story. The proud push of propaganda has its say, and it’s as straight, no chaser as we’re legally allowed to see in an afternoon. Good lord, there’s even a mammoth wall display that pretty much concludes that Bush is the Second Coming of Rachel Carson, and good luck finding a better steward of the land. On the opposite wall, a Katrina memorial of sorts, though I’m still looking for any mention of that now infamous FEMA director. If we believe the light show, Katrina was conservatism at its most compassionate, almost as if God himself sent that hurricane in order to give Dubya another chance to reinforce his inevitability as Savior. Also nearby is a reminder that for all he did or did not do, he stuck us with Justice Alito for the next 500 years. Chief Justice Roberts, while conservative, can at least be respected for his unquestionable brilliance, but Alito pretty much stopped listening years ago. His opinions are already written and stuffed in his nightstand.

Still more remains. Pics and portraits of Africa. State dinners. Official White House china. Ball gowns and tuxedos. A replica Oval Office, not quite life size, that never fails to give one goose bumps. And there, through a side window, is a replica Rose Garden, where Bush will no doubt be buried, though, given his genes, it’s altogether possible he’ll outlive the building itself. Certainly the university that chose to honor him. In all, while more Mecca for the Right, and sad, shiver-filled reminder for the Left, it’s a trip worth taking, if only to prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that absent 9/11, the Bush presidency would have been a shrug-filled footnote, perhaps remembered after historians tired of debating Chet Arthur. But we do have 9/11, and Dubya’s eight years are still as miserable as any in recent memory; more so in light of the financial meltdown during the administration’s final months. But it was never dull, and for many visitors, no doubt, it will remain the focal point of emotional and historical memory. And since the paint is still a bit wet, we know that once decades have added some rust and wrinkles to the enterprise, we’ll see it all again with the proper level of scrutiny. For now, Bush: The Musical, will suffice.

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