New George W. Bush library focuses on choices

Interactive sets on Iraq, Katrina await visitors

A view inside the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, where President Obama and the four living former presidents will attend a dedication ceremony Thursday.
A view inside the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, where President Obama and the four living former presidents will attend a dedication ceremony Thursday.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Texas — More than four years after leaving office, former president George W. Bush has a question for America: So what would you have done?

In a new brick-and-limestone museum, visitors to an interactive theater will be presented with the stark choices that confronted the nation’s 43d president: Invade Iraq or leave Saddam Hussein in power? Deploy federal troops after Hurricane Katrina or rely on local forces? Bail out Wall Street or let the banks fail?

The hypothetical exercise, complete with touch screens for users to pull up videos of ‘‘advisers’’ before voting on whether they would choose the same options as Bush, revisits the most consequential and controversial moments of his administration.


In the process, the country is being asked to reevaluate the two-term president who presided over some of the most tumultuous years in the nation’s history.

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The George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum will be officially dedicated Thursday on the campus of Southern Methodist University in a ceremony that will bring together President Obama and the four living ex-presidents.

Leaving aside for a day the partisan rancor that marked Bush’s tenure, they will help celebrate his eight years as president and six as governor of Texas.

Though it is the 13th official presidential museum, and the third in Texas, it is the first of the iPad era, and the exhibits are filled with modern gadgetry and 35 films and interactive exhibits.

Many of the artifacts of the period are on display — a butterfly ballot from Palm Beach County, Fla., a replica of Bush’s Oval Office, the bullhorn he used at Ground Zero, and a gnarled steel girder recovered from the World Trade Center.


The museum’s 14,000 square feet of exhibits present the presidency Bush intended (tax cuts, No Child Left Behind, faith-based social services) juxtaposed against the presidency he ended up having (terrorism and war).

Large screens recall the day the towers fell in New York and the invasion of Iraq. A glass-topped Defending Freedom Table allows visitors to pull up briefing materials, videos, and maps as if on a giant tablet.

No president produces a museum known for self-flagellation, and Bush’s is no exception. It does not ignore controversies like the weapons of mass destruction that were never found in Iraq, but it does not dwell on them either. In the Iraq display it says flatly, ‘‘No stockpiles of WMD were found.’’ But then it adds, ‘‘Post-invasion inspections confirmed that Saddam Hussein had the capacity to resume production of WMD.’’

A six-minute introductory video narrated by Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s former secretary of state, acknowledges disputes over Iraq and interrogation techniques while defending them as efforts to protect the country. ‘‘If you were in a position of authority on Sept. 11,’’ she says, ‘‘every day after was Sept. 12.’’

The museum touches on other crises and setbacks as well, including exhibits on Hurricane Katrina and the president’s failed Social Security initiative.


But it also features often overlooked achievements, like the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which has treated millions of people with AIDS in Africa, and the creation of a marine preserve in the central Pacific that is the world’s largest.

‘‘The museum itself is the Bushes’ personal statement about what they think was important,’’ said Mark Langdale, president of the George W. Bush Foundation, who oversaw the construction.

But Brendan Miniter, who managed development of the museum, said that Bush wanted the exhibits to avoid editorializing and, for example, insisted that critical letters from troops be included. ‘‘We try to let it speak for itself,’’ Miniter said.