You’ve probably heard by now that former President George W. Bush already has raised $100 million for his presidential library in Texas, outpacing previous fundraising efforts for the mausoleums built to honor other U.S. chief executives.
We’re not sure why it became a tradition to build a mammoth facility dressed up as a tourist attraction to house all of the papers a president hasn’t shredded, burned or buried on his way out of the White House.
The first official presidential library honored Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio, who grabbed the big prize in 1876 in a disputed election with Samuel Tilden, then New York’s governor. Tilden appeared to have won the popular vote, but some wild shenanigans blocked the Electoral College from confirming the result. After several weeks of ugly political mud-wrestling, a special “commission” of five U.S. senators, five House members and five Supreme Court justices handed the presidency to Hayes by one vote, an eerie precursor to the Bush v. Gore fiasco of 2000.
Hayes wasn’t exactly Rushmore material. The most interesting items found at his library in Fremont, OH, are the pair of fuzzy slippers Abraham Lincoln was said to be wearing the night before he was shot (they have deer antlers on them) and a piece of the actual White House fence, which surrounds the building.
There’s even a presidential library honoring Gerald R. Ford, who became the 38th president when Richard Nixon crawled out of Washington in disgrace in 1974. In the first application of the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, Ford had been appointed vice president by Nixon after Spiro Agnew resigned as part of a plea bargain to avoid jail time for accepting envelopes stuffed with cash from Maryland contractors. Unable to get elected president on his own after he pardoned Nixon, Ford only served for two years.
Speaking of Nixon, there are some rather unusual displays at his museum in Whittier, CA. A glass case devoted to Nixon’s war record includes a pair of deuces said to be the hand Tricky Dick deployed to bluff a colonel out of $1,500 while he spent WWII playing poker on a supply-chain outpost in the Pacific. There’s also a picture of the future president in uniform manning a grill at ”Nick’s Hamburger Stand.”
Because Nixon resigned after the Watergate scandal consumed his presidency, his was the first library built entirely with private funding. Nixon’s devotees came up with a novel solution to deal with the scandal: visitors walk through an empty room with mirrored walls fronted by what appear to be knee-high benches. It is only by leaning over the benches and looking at the mirrors that one sees the Watergate timeline, which is reflected from the back of the benches.
You can almost hear the 37th president telling the designers: ”We could do that — but that would be wrong!”
In recent years, architecture has become almost as important as substance in our presidential libraries.
This trend was established by I.M. Pei’s spectacular homage to John F. Kennedy’s love of the sea. The Kennedy library, which sits on a small peninsula jutting out into the middle of Boston Harbor, is shaped like a huge white sail. Every accoutrement in the building has an ocean-going theme, right down to the door knobs.
Which brings us back to George W. Don’t tell anybody, but a guy who runs a liquor store in Crawford, TX sent us a detailed plan for the George W. Bush Presidential Library. W. apparently left it on his counter when he stopped in recently to purchase a bottle of Jim Beam.
We don’t want to spill all the beans, but we can tell you that the governing principle of the library’s design will be ”Fun and Games.” The place is going to be set up like an amusement park, with several nods to the 43rd president’s quirky sense of humor and his penchant for going on vacation, which is where he spent at least a third of his presidency.
According to the plan, architect Frank Gehry is the leading candidate to design the building, if he can figure out how to make a 1-million-square-foot structure shaped like a 10-gallon hat.
Visitors will enter through the brim of the hat, where they immediately will be confronted with the quandary of whether to step on a mosaic, imbedded in the floor, that bears the likeness of W.’s father, George H.W. Bush, the 41st president.
This was W.’s idea. He had the mosaic removed from the entrance to Baghdad’s biggest hotel (where it had been installed by Saddam Hussein after the first Gulf War). W. can’t wait to see the look on Poppy’s face when Bush 41 enters the new museum after the ribbon-cutting.
Once inside, visitors will board a roller-coaster tram about the size of the Space Mountain ride in Disneyland but shaped like an old-fashioned Western stagecoach.
We don’t want to spoil all the surprises, but here are some coming attractions:
The roller coaster starts slowly, moving past a marble gateway with the giant words HALL OF GREAT ACCOMPLISHMENTS chiseled on its front. It enters a huge empty space with some fuzzy photos of W. greeting various luminaries hanging on the walls. As visitors try to focus on the pictures, huge jets of steam start spraying from nozzles in the ceiling, the lights dim, and everyone is showered with a substance that feels and smells like baby powder. A neon sign flashes: WEAPONS OF MASS DISTRACTION!
The coaster does several spins upside down in a series of tunnels labeled STRATEGERY ALLEY. In the last tunnel, the walls change colors as a sign flashes THREAT-LEVEL HIGH! All of the visitors’ cell phones suddenly start ringing at the same time. Then the coaster climbs a steep hill labeled BUILDUP TO WAR.
Once the tram reaches the top, it plunges into a deep abyss at bloodcurdling speed. At the bottom, what looks like a huge data punch-card swings down and threatens to decapitate the visitors. The bottom half of the card breaks off harmlessly at the last second. ”Hanging chad,” says the tour guide.
The coaster hits another incline labeled THE SURGE and then enters a hall of funhouse mirrors where the visitors see grotesquely distorted images of themselves under the label COUNCIL OF ECONOMIC ADVISORS.
Near the top of the second incline, a Dick Cheney robot dressed as Darth Vader douses everybody with a bucket of water. They are dried off by hot air shooting out of nozzles embedded in the mouth of a bust of Karl Rove.
When the coaster hits the peak, a group of beauty queens in swimsuits with sashes labeled WALL STREET will appear offering the visitors flutes of Cristal champagne. But before anyone can grab a free drink, the lights suddenly go out and the coaster drops off the edge of a 90-degree, 10-story embankment and takes a plunge that will, according to the plan, ”create G-forces equivalent to those that induce blackouts on jet fighter pilots.”
At the end of the ride, dizzy visitors will stagger across the faux deck of an aircraft carrier, where they can have their photos taken next to a cardboard cutout of W. in his flight suit under a MISSION ACCOMPLISHED banner.
Then it’s on to the doghouse-shaped snack bar, called Barney’s Cafe, for some dog dishes filled with pretzels. Visitors will be handed thick menus by waitresses wearing Barbara Bush masks.
Opening the menu, they will be startled by an incredibly realistic hologram of George H. W. Bush throwing up on the Japanese prime minister. A cardboard cutout next to the lunch counter of W. with a bullhorn will play a recorded message from the 43rd president:
”HEH…HEH…HEH — HOPE Y’ALL ENJOY THE FOOD!”