Looking forward to heal the past: Could Bush library banish Davidian stigma?
By Bill Whitaker Tribune-Herald city editor
Sunday, October 23, 2005
Some proponents of plans to place the George W. Bush Presidential Library & Museum in Waco say the facility would help banish the Branch Davidian stigma that has loomed over the city since 1993.
But the city's chief rival, Dallas, has had its own ghosts to exorcise, mostly involving the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 – and a Bush library might put a different spin on presidential figures for the sprawling city of more than a million.
The two tragic episodes are scarcely mentioned in the campaigns mounted by Baylor University and Southern Methodist University to win the Bush library. Yet, to an extent, the cities where those campuses are rooted have been defined by the incidents, themselves 30 years apart.
Dallas emerged as a particularly strong contender for the library this month when a presidential library committee headed by former Department of Commerce Secretary Don Evans narrowed the field of competitors to four finalists – Baylor, SMU, the University of Dallas and Texas Tech University.
Author Marshall Terry, a longtime SMU faculty member who has lived in Dallas for more than half a century, says a Bush library would be a boon to Dallas, even though it will never obliterate the stain of the Kennedy shooting.
"That'll always be there," he said.
Even so, Dallas has had time to establish a vibrant reputation in other ways that at least rival the Kennedy assassination in today's public mind. A specialist in Texas mythology and Dallas history, Terry acknowledges some are a little silly.
"I think the TV series 'Dallas' was a great help," he said, laughing, "even if it did refocus everybody on lust and greed."
The George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum would add another dimension to the city, Terry said.
"There is a mythology that Dallas is manmade and that strong men made it, and that certainly suits the image of President Bush," he said. "And it would be an important presidential library with all the questions about the war and the decisions behind it. And Dallas needs a boost and is looking for a boost."
A Bush library for Dallas, Terry said, "would say, 'This is where we are now.'"
Larry Lyon, a Baylor University professor of sociology, says Waco could benefit even more from the pride a presidential library might add, especially as the city slowly emerges from its ready identification with the Branch Davidian siege.
Lyon was involved in discussions with city leaders regarding the stigma that attached itself to Waco in the wake of the siege, which ended with a controversial tank and tear-gas assault of the apocalyptic cult's compound 10 miles east of Waco. The assault left 76 dead.
"Dallas has come to grips with the Kennedy assassination and treats it more like a historical incident rather than a black eye," Lyon said. "Plus, because of its size, it's had more opportunities on a national stage to change its image. But we (in Waco) don't have a No. 1 TV show called 'Waco.' We don't have a professional football team named the Waco Cowboys.”
That's why, he said, a presidential library in mid-sized Waco would mean far more, both to Waco – which is not far from the Prairie Chapel Ranch that President Bush says he finds solace in and often retreats to – and the library itself, which wouldn't be lost amid the numerous other offerings of Dallas.
"A presidential library on the banks of the Brazos on I-35 will quickly become a highly visible symbol of Waco," Lyon said. "For people going down I-35, the library will be an icon, more so than Baylor, more so than the ALICO building, more so than the river, more so than the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame."
Lyon says the bruise given Waco by the Branch Davidian siege is fading fast, though that further challenges Central Texas leaders and Baylor officials to replace that negative image with something positive.
Without the Bush library as a point of pride filling that void, Lyon said, "we might appear to others as one of a half-dozen very fine mid-sized Texas cities that are otherwise indistinguishable."
Calvin Jillson, an SMU professor of political science who has studied Bush's rise to power, says concerns about city pride and municipal self-image likely won't sway the president when time comes to make a decision about his library.
"While I'm sure there is that chamber of commerce sense in the cities themselves," he said, "this decision is going to be made by the president's people based on his legacy and how these institutions will secure it and build upon it.
"We may think of that kind of stuff," Jillson said, "but they're certainly not."
Jim Vaughan Jr., president of the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce, agrees with Jillson, adding that much also depends on how Bush pursues his post-presidential years. His father, for instance, has been aggressive in keeping his own presidential library at Texas A&M University vital through forums and programs involving international figures, some of whom he once sparred with.
Former President Jimmy Carter's library and museum in Atlanta accents much of the work he's undertaken since leaving the White House in 1981. And Bill Clinton, whose $165 million presidential library and museum opened late last year in Little Rock, Ark., also remains an intensely relevant figure, which his library will likely reflect.
"He hasn't just gone out and given speeches,” Vaughan said of Clinton, who most recently joined former President Bush in raising funds for hurricane relief. “He's been pretty involved in national and international affairs.”
Vaughan noted that some of President Bush's major political moments have been in Dallas, but Baylor University is where he held his economic summit in 2002 and his international summit with Mexican President Vicente Fox and Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin this past spring.
As for the Branch Davidian siege more than a dozen years ago, Vaughan said he suspects the incident may have thrust Waco into the limelight, but he doubts Americans actually ponder the tragedy when the city's name is mentioned.
"I don't think it's as big a negative as people in Waco think," he said.
In the end, the passing of the years may address the blemishes on any city.
"The number one thing that drives them away is the passage of time, of course," said Bruce Buchanan, political science professor at the University of Texas. "Independently of whatever else is going on, that'll eventually put the thing into perspective."