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Monumental Squalor

For the first time in a long while, the true face of the punks and thieves and fixers who actually run the machinery and do the real business of the Republican party was put on public display, and it was a horrible thing to see.
—Hunter S. Thompson, Generation of Swine

On August 28, 2007, a press release issued by Southern Methodist University of Dallas, Texas, announced that the George W. Bush Presidential Library Foundation had selected Robert A.M. Stern Architects LLP “to design the Presidential Library and Museum for America’s 43rd President,” which is to be built on the university’s campus.

At an estimated cost of $500 million, the project will be the most expensive in the history of presidential libraries, a tradition that began with Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The costliest so far has been Bill Clinton’s, at $165 million.

“In addition to the library and museum,” the statement continued, “the firm will design a policy institute to be associated with the library. The institute will be a forum for scholarly study and the exchange of ideas.” Its intentional parallels to the Hoover Institution, the independent right-wing think tank situated on the campus of Stanford University, has turned the proposed policy institute into a special target for SMU faculty protests. Benjamin Johnson, a professor and historian, has written on his Bush Library Blog that “the Bush Library-Museum-Institute will be as much or more a source of continued political propaganda for the Bush administration and its policies as it will be an educational resource. The Institute is explicitly conceived as an advocacy organization, and it will report to the Bush Foundation, not to the University.”

Members of the United Methodist Church have also expressed concern about aligning the university with Bush’s legacy. Though nonsectarian in its educational programs, SMU is owned by the church’s South Central Jurisdiction and includes a prominent Methodist seminary, the Perkins School of Theology. As reported by Bill Berkowitz in Media Transparency, Bishop William Boyd Grove of Charlestown, West Virginia, has stated unequivocally that “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.” Although the plan has already been approved by the jurisdiction’s Mission Council and College of Bishops, opponents are forcing a ratification vote by the South Central Jurisdictional Conference when it meets in Dallas this coming July.

Compared to these waves of principled opposition, the reaction of the cultural community to the selection of Stern, who is the Dean of the Yale School of Architecture, to design the project has been fairly muted. A search of the Internet has turned up a scattering of mostly dismissive comments, typified by David Dillon in Architectural Record: “A high-profile historicist for an institution that wants only collegiate Georgian architecture. Neo Trad for Neo-Cons. Where’s the surprise?”

In an interview published in the October 2007 issue of ARCHITECT magazine, John Gendall asked Stern to respond to criticism that the project would be “celebrating an unpopular president” and could possibly be seen as “an endorsement—even a tacit one—of his policies.” He replied:

Look, I’m an architect, not a political commentator. Last time I checked, he was the twice-elected president of the United States. Even if it is controversial, we still need to preserve the papers of a twice-elected president. Scholars will be able to interpret and reinterpret what went on, and his intellectual colleagues can continue to explore their way of thinking. He has high aspirations that leading political figures from around the world will be able to come there to study. And remember that most presidents are controversial and unpopular at times, but each of these people is the president, and each deserves a library.

No amount of highhandedness, self-serving rationalization or willful blindness, however, can shroud the amorality of Stern’s complicity with the Bush regime. There is no longer any room for impartiality or balance. By the time American bombs started raining hellfire on Baghdad in March 2003, the masks had come off, and—as Hunter S. Thompson wrote in 1987 about the Iran-contra scandal—it was a horrible thing to see.

On New Year’s Eve, 2007, in an editorial titled “Looking at America,” The New York Times published this assessment of the Bush record:

Out of panic and ideology, President Bush squandered America’s position of moral and political leadership, swept aside international institutions and treaties, sullied America’s global image, and trampled on the constitutional pillars that have supported our democracy through the most terrifying and challenging times. These policies have fed the world’s anger and alienation and have not made any of us safer.

It then ran through a short list of the “shocking abuses of President Bush’s two terms in office, made in the name of fighting terrorism,” including the cruelties of Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, the lethal employment of mercenaries who “gun down Iraqi civilians with no fear of prosecution,” warrantless spying on American citizens, and perversions of the legal code that “allow Mr. Bush to turn intelligence agents into torturers, to force doctors to abdicate their professional oaths and responsibilities to prepare prisoners for abuse, and then to monitor the torment to make sure it didn’t go just a bit too far and actually kill them.”

Evidently, when the initial RFQ (request for quotation) arrived from the Presidential Library Foundation, none of this was foremost on Robert Stern’s mind. As he told Gendall, “This is really special. I’ve had many wonderful clients and many famous clients, but the president of the United States is at the top of the list.” Asked about his “first impressions about this president as an architectural client,” he demurred:

Well, we’re not too far along yet, so it’s hard to say, but he is definitely open to exploring new ideas and to making something special. And it’s not just Bush who is open. I am also open to exploring what is the exact, correct building with the right dignity and character for this project.

If that really were the case, if Stern were to come up with “the exact, correct building with the right dignity and character” for the Bush legacy, it would be worth waiting for. But evidently he is taking the terms “dignity and character” at face value, without the absurdist subtext the circumstances demand.

When Michelangelo was commissioned by Pope Paul III to paint the Last Judgment in the private chapel of the official papal residence—the sacred space where the pope is elected by the College of Cardinals up to this day—he did not hesitate to include an allegorical depiction of the Seven Deadly Sins in which three are “especially singled out as those … that led to corruption in the Church: avarice, lust and pride,” according to the scholar Bernadine Barnes in her paper, “Metaphorical Painting: Michelangelo, Dante and the Last Judgment.”

These vices had a long tradition of being associated with the popes, and Michelangelo makes sure the point is not lost by hanging the papal keys as well as a sack of coins around the neck of Avarice.

Even if, as Barnes points out, “the emphasis on these particular sins should be seen as self-criticism by the highest ranking members of the Church, a warning to those who most needed to hear it,” rather than Michelangelo’s “own personal criticism of the papacy” or a reflection of “Lutheran or heretical views,” it’s also true that the artist didn’t need to include that imagery, in that form, at all. Nor was he obliged to portray, directly above the sanctuary door, the pope’s Master of Ceremonies, Biagio da Cesena—who famously derided the fresco for its nudity—as an ass-eared, hermaphroditic Minos, the judge of the damned, with a serpent coiling twice around his body (signifying lust) and sinking its fangs into his cock.

This is the proper position of artist to authority. Michelangelo was a sculptor, painter, poet, and architect, not a political commentator. But, to quote another poet from another time and place, he knew a hawk from a handsaw. He understood that monuments shape memory, and he couldn’t let his moment pass without exposing its raw truths.

Stern prefers self-delusion. In the ARCHITECT interview, after noting in passing that FDR “was also controversial during his presidency,” he criticized some of the other presidential libraries as “bombastic” and “dull,” and professed confidence that Bush’s would be neither, a choice of words suggesting that part of the building’s program would be to reify Bush’s personal façade as a just-folks type of guy you’d enjoy buddying up with.

The most insidious tenet of American exceptionalism is its stubborn belief that our essential decency as a people renders us, and our government, incapable of deliberate atrocities or aggression. Yet from the hell of Iraq to the high water of New Orleans, Bush has left chaos, waste and corruption in his wake with such unfailing consistency that a degree of premeditation should not be speculated, but assumed. Still, he’s a “twice-elected president of the United States,” and that counts for something.

Stern seems to display the same inability as “the ordinary voter to come to grips with the notion,” as Dr. Thompson wrote twenty years ago, “that a truly evil man, a truthless monster with the brains of a king rat and the soul of a cockroach” could assume the presidency of the United States, someone who “will bring his gang in with him, a mean network of lawyers and salesmen and pimps who will loot the national treasury, warp the laws, mock the rules and stay awake 22 hours a day looking for at least one reason to declare war, officially, on some hapless tribe in the Sahara or heathen fanatic like the Ayatollah Khomeini.”

Substitute Saddam Hussein for the Ayatollah Khomeini, and you have the Bush administration of 2002-2003. Now switch Saddam with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and you have the Bush administration today. You don’t have to be a prophet or a political commentator to see these things. You just have to open your eyes.


Thomas Micchelli


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2008

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