Presidential records a time capsule of Bush years
AP Photo DN101, DN102, DN103
By JEFF CARLTON
Associated Press Writer
LEWISVILLE, Texas (AP) — Spread upon a table are a sampling of gifts to former President George W. Bush: a purse made of vines from the Thai queen, a Texas Rangers jersey autographed by pitcher Nolan Ryan and a framed mosaic of St. Peter’s Basilica from the pope.
The gifts, documents and electronic records accumulated during Bush’s two terms have gone from the White House to a warehouse in suburban Dallas, just a few miles north of a turnpike named for his father. They will remain there until Bush’s $300 million presidential library — the nation’s 13th and the third in Texas — opens in 2013 on the Southern Methodist University campus near downtown Dallas.
"It’s a wonderful eight-year time capsule," said Jennifer M. Schulle, the registrar for the Bush library. "It’s everything that was going on — politically, personally and socially."
There are about 40,000 artifacts and 65 million documents stored in the facility. The 100 terabytes of electronic records is by far the largest of any presidential collection, as the Bush administration was the first that worked entirely during an era of e-mail.
Also among the artifacts is the 9 mm pistol Saddam Hussein carried when U.S. soldiers captured him hiding in a spider hole in 2003. Inside two dozen unopened crates are the disassembled pieces of the White House Situation Room, which was renovated and upgraded during Bush’s first term. Not all of it can be found, however.
"I think it’s like the Berlin Wall," said Shannon Jarrett, the library’s supervisory archivist. "Everyone seemed to get little chunks of it."
The Air Force moved the materials from Washington to Texas, the first wartime transfer of presidential records. The move involved 16 18-wheelers and three planes.
"It’s a colossal amount of material," Jarrett said. "We won’t get to all of it in our lifetime."
The documents and records are filed in labeled boxes stacked neatly upon rows of shelves in different vaults within the warehouse. There are 79 boxes labeled presidential letters and correspondence. Other boxes contain records from the desk of political adviser Karl Rove and Chief of Staff Josh Bolten. It’s the kind of place where you might expect to stumble across the Ark of the Covenant.
The warehouse has temperature and humidity controls, and around-the-clock security.
A sealed room holds classified records. Under the 1981 Presidential Records Act, records can be withheld for at least five years and up to 12 years if they fall under any of six categories: national defense or foreign policy; appointments to federal office; records specifically exempt by law; trade secrets or financial information; records concerning advice given the president and his advisers; and personnel or medical files. Documents concerning national security issues can be withheld longer.
"That’s when you get the good stuff," Jarrett said.
The National Archives and Records Administration has a legal mandate to preserve every presidential record, which covers anything produced by White House staff. A handwritten note scrawled on a cocktail napkin qualifies as a presidential record. So does a draft copy of a State of the Union address.
Even Christmas decorations, including trees and holiday-themed paintings, wind up in the warehouse. There are boxes full of presidential cuff links, crayons and pens.
No record or gift is too small or insignificant for archival.
"Not when it deals with the president," Jarrett said. "People will come look for the letter they wrote to the president in the 5th grade. Our goal is to find that for them."
Most of the records and items will never be seen by the public, stored off-limits in parts of Bush’s presidential center. Those that eventually are displayed will reflect the four broad themes on which Bush’s private foundation wants to focus the exhibits: freedom, opportunity, compassion and individual responsibility.
"This was an administration of great consequence and there are a stunning array of issues we can educate about," said Alan C. Lowe, the director of the Bush Library. "I’m a historian suddenly in the middle of history."
SMU’s President George W. Bush Library site: http://smu.edu/bushlibrary/
TAMU’s President George H.W. Bush Library site: http://bushlibrary.tamu.edu/