The George W. Bush Presidential Center, a museum and library that contains the historic bric-a-brac of President George W. Bush's White House, is being dedicated today. In keeping with arcane traditions, all of the living presidents of these United States are in attendance to fete the occasion. Speeches have been made, songs sung, pleasantries exchanged, and now all you need to do is Google "What time does the George W. Bush Presidential Center open on Saturday?" to proceed with the next step in your lives.
I've not been paying very close attention to the celebration, other than to passively absorb the cable teevee coverage, which all seems to be coming straight from the lips of Dr. Pangloss to my captive ears. (A summary: Gatherings of presidents are neat-o! Look at them! They all seem to be great pals! Everyone is being so nice to President Bush. Nice things are nice!)
But scrolling around the web, I now see that I should have paid more attention, because according to The New York Times' Peter Baker, President Barack Obama faced a very "delicate task" at this ceremony. Which surprises me, because as near as I can tell, the George W. Bush Presidential Center is not, say, testing nuclear weapons or promising war with South Korea or threatening to destabilize an entire region. (Though I guess the day is young.)
Per Baker, here's why this library opening is actually a perilous moment for the Obama White House:
It has become an awkward ritual of the modern presidency that the current occupant of the Oval Office is called upon to deliver a generous historical judgment of the previous one. With the opening of each new presidential library, the members of the world’s most exclusive fraternity put aside partisan differences to honor the shared experience of running the nation in difficult times.
The task in such moments is especially acute when, as with Mr. Obama and Mr. Bush, the current and previous presidents come from opposing parties and such different sensibilities. The incumbent must hit grace notes without appearing inconsistent with past criticism or, worse, hypocritical. Sometimes a president goes through the motions, dutifully reading what aides put before him. Other times, library dedications have become bonding moments when presidents genuinely grow closer.
See, the problem facing Obama is that in key moments of his life as a politician, he has publicly assessed the Bush legacy as, you know, less than ideal. And now he has to stand in front of Bush at a big celebration and not issue a series of policy indictments. Awkward, right?
At least one person Baker has talked to thinks that the policies on which Bush and Obama agree are the thornier ones:
“He’s never going to say this,” [former Bush speechwriter Marc] Thiessen said, “but if he’s being totally honest, he would say that except for interrogations, he adopted almost the entire Bush counterterrorism policy, some of it voluntarily, some of it involuntarily, but most of it voluntarily.”
Ha, well, Thiessen is absolutely right that Obama has pretty much continued the bulk of Bush's counterterrorism policies and "unitary executive" outlook -- and even expanded upon them. I'm bewildered, though, as to why anyone should expect this to come up at a museum dedication. "Yo, where my fans of targeted extrajudicial killings at? Can I get a what-what?" doesn't seem like a sentiment Obama is likely to offer, though I suppose it would "make news."
And that's really the point, actually. If Baker was willing to be dead honest with his readers about the "delicate task," he wouldn't couch his piece in all this gauze and mummery. He'd simply say, "The media is going to scrutinize every detail of Obama's brief speech looking for gaffes and 'tells,' which we will then stretch into one-day stories."
That's really what this is about. Baker's piece is basically a warning that it's up to Obama to keep this non-event from becoming a pseudo-event. Obama has to navigate this little bit of oratory without seeming insincere in his remarks, or saying anything that a pundit-necromancer can spin into a dig, or doing anything funny with his gestures. Because what Baker means to say is that reporters are lying in wait to analyze his body language and pore over his word choice to divine dire meanings in preparation for articles titled, "Obama did not use the word 'freedom'" or "Obama's hip-hop library dedication did not create jobs."
And what if Obama fails? This is the extraordinary thing, actually. Unlike every other "delicate task" that Obama could fail at this day or this week or this year, should Obama's Bush library speech be deemed less-than-satisfactory, the result will be a hot sack of nothing at all. No one's lives will be affected by anything that happens at this library today. There aren't merely low stakes, there are no stakes.
I don't know why it's so hard to just admit this. Anyone who really thinks that this library opening is some sort of perilous moment for any of the attendees or speakers needs to get out more.
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