DALLAS Here’s my takeaway from Wednesday’s half-hourish media tour of the new George W. Bush museum: He was president for a while and he had a dog. And he liked baseball.
That’s exaggeration, of course, and it’s meant in a good way. The too-short tour left me eager to return for a longer visit when it opens to the public May 1. I think you’ll find it worth the trip. Presidential museums are important, even those of presidents you may not like.
This one includes side-by-side statues of both Presidents Bush, as well as statues of W’s dogs.
Among the more stirring experiences is a video presentation that surrounds visitors high on the walls near where they enter. An evocative musical score plays as American faces and landscapes and tableaux appear on the walls. I’ve not seen anything quite like it.
The museum moves chronologically through Bush’s life, including how Texas left its mark on him.
The 2000 election turmoil exhibit includes a Tampa Tribune headline that says, ”Exhaustive media ballot recount confirms Bush victory over Gore.” There are chads and a butterfly ballot and campaign memorabilia.
Visitors then are taken through the early months of what Bush thought would be a domestic-focused presidency. The area includes an exhibit about Tee Ball on the South Lawn, a great program that had kids playing baseball on the White House grounds. Bush’s autographed baseball collection is displayed with the tee ball exhibit.
Nearby, there’s a recounting of the optimistic days that led to 9/11. That leads to the famous photo of White House Chief of Staff Andy Card whispering into Bush’s ear in a Florida classroom.
”And then came a day of fire,” says a display including a photo of the flaming towers.
From there, just to the right, visitors are confronted by, and invited to touch, a 17-foot-high section of twisted steel from the World Trade Center. Around the base are words from Bush’s Sept. 12, 2001, speech: ”These acts shattered steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve.”
The names of those killed on 9/11 are on the walls around the beam.
Bush’s key decisions are the interactive subject in the museum’s Decision Points Theater, where visitors pick from four topics (Hurricane Katrina, the fiscal crisis and two involving Iraq) and get video briefings from various sources. You’re asked to pick a course of action. On the invasion of Iraq, the choices are ”Seek new U.N. resolution,” ”Lead international coalition” or ”Take no action.”
Bush, on video, explains his decisions. Here’s part of what he says about Iraq:
”My first choice was to use diplomacy rather than putting American troops into harm’s way. … It became clear that the diplomatic track was not working. So rather than accepting Saddam’s defiance, we led an international coalition to topple his regime. Before 9/11, Saddam Hussein was a problem America might have been able to manage, but after 9/11 the stakes were too high to trust a dictator’s word against the weight of evidence and the consensus of the world.”
I’ve got to think there were meetings about how to handle the fact that no WMDs were found in Iraq. That’s waved at this way:
”Saddam posed too big a risk to ignore,” Bush says. ”He had used weapons of mass destruction in the past, showed every sign of continuing to pursue such weapons and supported international terrorist organizations. The world was made safer by his removal.”
After Wednesday’s tour, Laura Bush, who played a major role in the project, told us she’s pleased with how it turned out.
”George did not want this to be a monument to himself … because he thinks that if it’s based on one personality, it becomes less and less relevant over time,” she said. ”If it’s based on the principles we believe are the most important for our country, then it can stay relevant.”
Mrs. Bush believes the 9/11 exhibit is the most moving, but she also mentioned ”things (visitors) might not know that much about,” including Bush’s PEPFAR project that has brought anti-AIDS drugs to millions of Africans and his actions to protect oceans.
And she told us about parting with her ball gowns now on display.
”It was not that difficult to give up the ball gowns because I’ll probably never wear them again anyway,” she said. ”You know George is not wild about black tie.”
Last note: May 1, the day the museum opens to the public, will be the 10th anniversary of Bush’s ”Mission Accomplished” speech on an aircraft carrier. Somewhat strange, isn’t it, that they picked that date anyway.
Ken Herman is a columnist for the Austin American-Statesman. E-mail: email@example.com.
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