Agenda Texas: The Influence of Presidential Libraries

George W. Bush speaking at the dedication of the Bush Presidential Center on the SMU Campus in Dallas
George W. Bush speaking at the dedication of the Bush Presidential Center on the SMU Campus in Dallas

We previously talked about how the opening of the Bush Library and Museum begins the rehabilitation of the former president’s political past. Today we look at how the Bush Institute, the policy think-tank section of the Bush Center, might affect the country’s political future. 

“I’m retired from politics — happily so, I might add — but not from public service," former President George W. Bush said Thursday at the dedication of the Bush Presidential Center. "We’ll use our influence to help more children start life with a quality education, to help more Americans find jobs and economic opportunity, to help more countries overcome poverty and disease, to help more people in every part of the world live in freedom."

But how the institute will do that remains unclear. That branch of the Bush center hasn’t taken shape yet. As Southern Methodist University political science professor Cal Jillson said, how it comes together will determine whether it becomes a player in the national political debate.

“Whether it is a legacy-reconstruction machine that tries to put the best policy face on the results of the Bush presidency or something broader, something more thoughtful and inquisitive, remains to be seen," Jillson said.

Either way, this is the third presidential library in Texas. And the other two, Lyndon B. Johnson's at the University of Texas at Austin and George H.W. Bush's at Texas A&M University, have degree programs that are constantly churning out the next generation of politicians and policy experts.

“In Texas we always do it bigger than anybody else and better than anybody else," said political consultant and former Bush campaign adviser Mark McKinnon. “The reality is that these presidential libraries are Petri dishes for big ideas. I mean, they’re not just libraries; they’re centers of research and policy development at its very highest level. So there’s all kinds of potential impact on future policy not only here in America but around the globe."

The state has certainly left its mark on national politics. New York Times columnist Gail Collins' recent book As Texas Goes details how a number of national policy initiatives bubbled up from the Lone Star State. And now more of those ideas will get additional attention with the third presidential library.

But Jillson said there are a couple of problems with that theory. First, the schools aren’t on the same page politically.

“Substantively, I think all these schools will be pulling in their own direction," he said. "So the policy ideas, I don’t think, will accumulate, because the LBJ School will have one set of initiatives, and Bush 41 will have another set of speakers and programs and initiatives."

Second, Jillson said, for the first time since the Great Depression, Texas doesn’t have an influential role in Washington.

“Our leadership role in Congress is quite modest. And it’s possible that we’ll have another Bush run for the Republican nomination in 2016, but it’ll be coming out of Florida rather than Texas this time," Jillson said.

"So I think we’re going to have to wait for George P. before we get more Texas leadership at the national level.”

And that could take a few years. George P. Bush — that’s George W’s nephew — is running for Texas land commissioner in 2014.

Do you plan to visit the new Bush Library and Museum? Let us know why or why not. We’re at [email protected]. You can also tweet us your answer: @AgendaTexas

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