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Special Reports Last Updated: Oct 11th, 2007 - 00:42:14

Methodists battle George W. Bush over SMU Library & 'Freedom Institute'
By Bill Berkowitz
Online Journal Guest Writer

Oct 11, 2007, 00:39

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President Bush may think it's a done deal, and First Lady Laura may be measuring for drapes. An architect has been chosen, and the project is proceeding to raise $500 million. And Karl Rove, who actually may be running the entire show, is also likely lining up a host of conservative think-tankers. Much of the media that covered the story only a few months ago appear to have lost interest. However, before the George W. Bush Library, with its attached public policy institute, are built at Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas, Texas, they must overcome rising objections within the nationwide United Methodist community.

On September 24, the Dallas Morning News reported, "Officially, no decision has been made on where the presidential library will be located, but SMU has long been considered the prohibitive favorite. An architectural firm was chosen last month to design the project."

Earlier in the month, the Reverend Andrew J. Weaver, an ordained United Methodist minister and research psychologist living in New York City (who also writes for Media Transparency), and one of the organizers of the campaign to keep the Bush Library off the SMU campus, sent an "Open Letter" to the more than 10,000 signers of a petition urging them to keep working to make SMU a Bush-free zone.

Final vote on Bush Library yet to come, say opponents

On September 25, opponents of the Bush Library and think tank issued a press release calling on the United Methodist Church "to deny approval to Southern Methodist University to host the Bush complex."

According to the press release, the South Central Jurisdictional Conference of the United Methodist Church will meet in Dallas from July 15-19, 2008, and will vote whether to allow the Bush Library to be built on campus. United Methodist opponents of the Bush complex will be asking the 290 elected delegates -- representing the 1.83 million United Methodists living in Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Arkansas, and Louisiana -- to the Conference "to vote against this request."

Bishop Joe A. Wilson of Georgetown, Texas, said that although "the 21 member Mission Council approved by a vote of 10-4 the use of the SMU property for the Library and partisan Policy Institute, this decision must be ratified by the larger Jurisdictional Conference . . ." Jurisdiction rules state that "all actions taken by the Council shall be valid and in full effect. . . . until the next regular session of The Conference." Wilson pointed out that "plac[ing] a partisan policy Think Tank, with no oversight by the church and university, on the grounds of a United Methodist Institution, is an issue the Jurisdictional Conference must not take lightly."

"The placement of the George W. Bush Library and the establishment of an Institute to promote the policies of this president at Southern Methodist University would be a tragedy," said Bishop William Boyd Grove of Charlestown, West Virginia. "The policies of the Bush administration are in direct conflict with the Social Principles of the United Methodist Church on issues of war and peace, civil liberties and human rights, care for the environment, and health care. SMU is a university of the church and is home to one of our outstanding theological seminaries. Its United Methodist identity and its moral authority would be seriously compromised were it to be identified with the policies of George W. Bush in this way."

Bishop Kenneth W. Hicks of Little Rock, Arkansas, pointed out that in February of this year, a petition drive was launched by bishops, clergy and laity of the United Methodist Church that "call[ed] for the SMU trustees and the UMC to reject the Bush project. That petition now has the signatures of 15 UMC bishops and more than 10,800 Christians (mostly United Methodists) and persons of conscience. We are very much encouraged by the national and international response that we have garnered."

Executive Order 13233

Opponents are "question[ing] the educational value of the Bush complex" given that earlier in his administration Bush issued Executive Order 13233, "which," the press release notes, "provides former Presidents with virtually unlimited powers to deny or grant access to documents generated under their administrations." The executive order extends these powers to a president's heirs.

Recently, SB 866, the Presidential Records Act Amendments of 2007, a bill sponsored by Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman, which would rescind Bush's Executive Order 13233, was assigned a number, made its way to the Senate floor and has since been stalled by Republican Sen. Jim Bunning.

"Professors within the history department at Southern Methodist University, the future home of the George W. Bush Presidential Library, may not all agree on the benefits or legitimacy of the library, museum and institute. However, they unanimously agree about SB 866 and the need to rescind the presidential order," Laray Polkfor recently wrote in the Dallas Morning News.

Bishop C. Joseph Sprague of London, Ohio, observed that "last spring the Faculty Senate and the history faculty at SMU issued statements criticizing the Executive Order as incompatible with the goals of providing public and scholarly access to federal documents. It is a great concern when a large number of the faculty at a United Methodist university question the educational value of a project."

Bishop Susan M. Morrison of Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, pointed out that while she "respect[s] the office of the presidency, presidential libraries are created, partly, to celebrate the legacies of particular presidents [and] . . . Bush's leadership has been so problematic and contrary to much of our Social Principles, it does not seem appropriate to place this library in the midst of one of our celebrated educational institutions."

"It's not a matter of censorship, but there's a lot of resentment that this institute will be run without any oversight by the university," the Rev. Weaver, who is spearheading the drive, told the Dallas Morning News.

The newspaper also reported, "An SMU official said that while the university respected the opinions of the opponents, 'We believe we have the approval from the Methodist church we needed to move forward.'"

Brad Cheves, SMU vice president of development and external affairs, appeared to not be concerned over how much oversight the university has over the policy institute. "This seems to be a repeat of the views that were expressed last spring and rejected," he said.

Enter Karl Rove

After his November 2004 victory, Bush and Karl Rove attended the opening ceremonies for the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Arkansas. Sidney Blumenthal, writing for the Guardian (UK) noted that "offstage, beforehand, Rove and Bush had had their library tours. According to two eyewitnesses, Rove had shown keen interest in everything he saw, and asked questions, including about costs, obviously thinking about a future George W. Bush library and legacy."

In early September, Paul Bedard wrote in his U.S. News & World Report "Washington Whispers" column that Rove "is expected . . . to take charge of . . . the design, fundraising, and planning for what insiders are calling a copy of the conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford University." Rove, who has "long played a key role" in the project, will not "be the front man . . . instead focusing on putting the president's stamp on the facility."

New York's Robert A. M. Stern Architects was selected by Bush and his wife to design the facility. SMU's student newspaper, The Daily Campus, reported in late August that Stern, who is also dean of Yale University's School of Architecture, met with the Bushes August 23 at their ranch in Crawford, Texas, after which they decided to choose his firm over two other finalists.

According to the newspaper, "Stern's firm was selected with the help of a five-member committee that evaluated different architecture firms for the project. That committee included Laura Bush, Roland Betts, a partner with Bush in the Texas Rangers; Deedie Rose, whose husband Rusty was also a partner in the Texas Rangers, Witold Rybczynski, who Bush appointed in 2004 as a member of the Commission of Fine Arts; and Marvin Bush, the President's brother."

In an email, the Rev. Weaver pointed out, "The fact that the press is reporting that Rove will lead the effort to design and plan the freedom institute has increased the concern about and sentiment against the project among many in the church. Three additional bishops signed the petition this week. I believe we have the stronger arguments on our side and can win the debate in the church. And, if Bush bombs Iran, I doubt he will ever get an inch of church land to put anything on."

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement and a frequent writer for Media Transparency. He documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.

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