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A Bush library to remember or forget?

SMU officials brush off criticism of planned building.

DALLAS - His approval ratings are among the lowest for any president in modern U.S. history. He is presiding over the worst economic crisis since the Depression. He acknowledges that many Americans have repudiated his Republican Party. And he has been utterly eclipsed by a charismatic successor.

The present hasn't worked out so well for President Bush. So now he's banking on a kinder and gentler future.

With the days quickly counting down on Bush's White House lease, plans for the George W. Bush Presidential Library are ramping up as architects finish designs for an edifice on the campus of Southern Methodist University intended to burnish the president's image for the ages.

"I'm confident that people will come to change their mind about the president and some of the decisions he made," said Mark Langdale, a longtime Bush friend who heads the foundation overseeing the library's development. "You need time to get past the current news cycle and the prejudices and emotions of the moment."

The estimated $300 million project, on prime real estate at the university's entrance, is expected to open in 2013. It will contain the archives of the Bush presidency, a museum celebrating his accomplishments and a policy institute its backers hope will become a leading Republican think tank.

Yet, given the president's current unpopularity, some Bush critics wonder whether the facility will turn out to be a historical white elephant. Fund-raising for the project has been "very modest," according to Dan Bartlett, a former Bush counselor acting as a library spokesman. Langdale said the president was intentionally waiting until he leaves office to start actively seeking out donors.

"The skeptics could be right: It might be a white elephant," said Benjamin Hufbauer, an art-history professor at the University of Louisville and an expert on presidential libraries. "But presidents don't see it that way. . . . Presidents see these as a foundation from which to build a new reputation. It's just the right kind of elephant."

For their part, SMU officials are certain that once they build it, people will come.

"Sometimes the administrations that have the kinds of interesting times that this one has had make for even more research and discussion and debate," said Brad Cheves, university vice president for development.

Most of the campus controversy that last year surrounded the choice of SMU as the site of the library has dissipated. What residue remains centers on the concerns that the Bush policy institute will become a neoconservative firebase rather than the legitimate scholarly enclave promised by officials.

Just how valuable the entire complex will be to future historians and scholars remains uncertain, especially given an executive order signed by Bush in 2001 that grants a former president broad discretion to withhold administration documents from the public.

Historians have decried Bush's order, which overrides national records laws mandating the release of documents 12 years after a president leaves office, and they have urged Obama to reverse it.

Langdale says the Bush museum will not avoid the most divisive episodes of the president's years in office, such as the administration's much-criticized response to Hurricane Katrina. Which is not to say that those controversies might not be subject to some positive historical spin.

"There's an interesting lesson about Katrina and the limitations of government assistance to respond to big natural disasters," Langdale said. "They are acts of God, and they are tough. It's definitely a story line I would not shy away from addressing somehow in the museum."