George W. Bush: The Makeover

Can the George W. Bush Policy Institute be a bipartisan, non-ideological engine for change? Lloyd Grove talks to the man in charge, James Glassman, about the challenge ahead.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP Photo

Groundbreaking for the George W. Bush Policy Institute, the 43rd president’s bright idea for what has been vaguely described as an “action-oriented think tank,” isn’t expected till late next year. Brand-name architect Robert A.M. Stern, a “modern traditionalist,” has yet to unveil the blueprints and models. But already—and predictably, given Dubya’s troubled relationship with the intellectual elite—his nascent think tank has provoked reactions ranging from skepticism to disdain.

Bush’s recent appointment of Washington insider James K. Glassman as founding executive director of the institute at Southern Methodist University in Dallas has done little to reassure the ivory-tower dwellers. The 62-year-old Glassman, Bush’s undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, is known in D.C. as a former newspaper and magazine publisher and a onetime financial columnist for The Washington Post.

But he is positively notorious as the coauthor of a book boasting a magnificently mistaken title: Dow 36,000.

Glassman—who carefully says that “in no formal sense is Karl Rove involved” in the Bush Institute—stoutly rejects the notion that it will have anything to do with legacy-rehab.

“It’s been a real character-builder,” Glassman tells me good-naturedly about all the abuse he’s taken since his book—which confidently predicted “the coming rise in the stock market”—was published back in 1999, shortly before the tech bubble burst (never mind the financial meltdown of 2008). “I’ve definitely taken some criticism, and I’m a better man for it. I used to say to people who criticized the book, ‘Have you read it?’ But I suppose that was really kind of futile on my part. Telling people, ‘Hey, you gotta read the book,’ was really ridiculous,” Glassman says. “I think the book itself was sound. But the fact is, it had an inflammatory, overdone title.”

But SMU History Professor Benjamin Johnson—a leading, if thwarted, opponent of the Bush complex—really likes the title. “To have picked the co-author of Dow 36,000 is a fitting tribute to the Bush legacy of wild-eyed utopianism,” Professor Johnson says. “It’s the same sort of vision of the future that caused a lot of people an enormous amount of damage while its architects are still sitting pretty. Glassman is an oddly poetic kind of choice.”

Bush 36,000, anyone?

Along with a small but vocal group of liberal faculty members from SMU’s Perkins School of Theology, Johnson has been watching the Bush Institute’s gestation with a jaundiced eye.

“The core concern is we risk turning over our public face to one of the most destructive and discredited presidencies in American history,” Professor Johnson says. “The way presidential libraries work, at least for a generation, is legacy burnishing”—an enterprise incompatible with truth-seeking, he says. “Most of the time, a presidential library’s subject looks a lot better at the library than a disinterested party would portray him.”

Johnson notes that political guru Karl Rove, who spent much of his final months in the Bush White House helming the “Legacy Project” to polish the president’s problematic record, also visited two private libraries—the Huntington in San Marino, California, and the Newberry in Chicago—on an intelligence-gathering mission on behalf of his boss, asking lots of questions about the how-to’s of administration, organization and scholarship.

But Glassman—who carefully says that “in no formal sense is Karl Rove involved” in the Bush Institute—stoutly rejects the notion that it will have anything to do with legacy-rehab.

“It’s really important to understand that the institute is about the future, it’s not about defending the legacy or any of that,” Glassman says. “The aim is to build a significant research institute that will last for two or three hundred years, the way a university does, and will work on important projects that will improve the lot of people.”

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Asked for specifics, Glassman demurs, “That’s not something I’m going to talk about. You will see in a few months. We don’t want to announce it yet.”

Glassman claims the Bush Institute will offer a new model for post-presidential activity, different from Jimmy Carter’s Center in Atlanta or Bill Clinton’s Global Initiative. “I can’t be very concrete, but it goes beyond that,” Glassman says. “Let me explain it this way: Every president since Franklin Roosevelt has had a library. FDR said his was really for future generations to examine in detail what went on during his presidency so they can apply those lessons to the future. So we are doing that—there will be a library and a museum. But what President Bush wants to do is create something that’s never been done before—a real research institute akin to a think tank, and we want to be able to link the research to a kind of back end where there are practical results, where people are actually out in the field doing work based on the research that we do.”

Both Glassman and his immediate boss, Dallas businessman and Bush intimate Mark Langdale—former ambassador to Costa Rica and president of the Bush Foundation—stress that the think tank will be “non-partisan,” and free of an ideological agenda. Glassman, who hopes to hire two-dozen scholars in the coming months, insists that Democrats will possibly be among them. In other words, it sounds a lot like the kind of presidency Bush was promising in the fall of 2000, but never got around to.

Professor Johnson tartly responds: “I’ll believe that when I see it.”

For now, Glassman is rolling up his sleeves to help raise the estimated $300 million seed money for the Bush complex at SMU. “I love to sell, I love to sell!” he tells me. “I’ve been in advertising most of my life. The other quality I have—and I think it must be what they [Bush and Langdale] think I have—is I’ve started or revived a bunch of institutions. I like that sort of entrepreneurial activity. I like getting things started. Once they’re started, I tend to get a little bored. Really my job is get the institute off the ground.”

But first, he's finishing the sequel to Dow 36,000. The hopeful title: Comeback.

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.