Pharaoh’s Tomb

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A couple weeks ago I was in Dallas for a work conference and I had the opportunity to visit the George W. Bush Presidential Center. It was, like all presidential libraries, a fantastic spectacle of power and wealth. Ostensibly, the point of these places is to preserve the papers and records of the executive administration for historical research. Most presidents treat them as a means for securing their legacies. This is done with a mixture of awe-inspiring architecture, propaganda-laced museum exhibits, and, of course, very careful control of the vital information buried within.

Compared with the LBJ’s towering monolith at the University of Texas or Reagan’s mountaintop fortress overlooking the Simi Valley, the George W. Bush Presidential Center has a more understated grandeur. It’s built in a weird neo-neoclassical, antebellum style that appears to mimic the old mansion residences of the Highland Park neighborhood that surrounds it. The public is allowed access to only a small portion of the building’s interior, giving one the false impression that the space is not very large. In fact, the George W. Bush Center is the second largest presidential library and comprises 207,000 square feet. President Bush raised an astounding $500 million for the construction and maintenance of the library. Of the building’s several wings, I only visited one: the museum.

In the grand, marble and granite lobby of the Presidential Center’s museum visitors may gather, purchase tickets, and gape bemusedly at the lavish gifts of state given to the President and to the First Lady by various dictatorial regimes from across the globe. I found that the ostentatiousness of the gifts roughly corresponded to the poverty of the country of origin. Africans autocrats seem to be fond of garish sculptures shaped from precious metals. Middle Eastern states gave gems. The Saudi royal family gave a jewelry set of diamond and sapphires which itself is probably worth a moderate-size fortune.

The museum exhibits were not as bluntly propagandic as I was expecting. I think there was a willingness on the part of the museum’s planners to acknowledge that a uniformly positive narrative of the George W. Bush presidency would be met with some skepticism. Bush’s approval ratings at the end of his second term were hovering around 30% and most of his economic and foreign policy had been roundly discredited. Consequently, the museum’s focus tends to be more on the historical events that took place during the Bush presidency and less on the extent to which the president shaped and had influence over those events. Not surprisingly, too, the museum gives a good deal of both physical and intellectual space to the 9/11 attacks, when Bush’s approval ratings were at an all-time high and the country was awash in patriotic sentiment. Special focus is paid to the speech President Bush gave at the Ground Zero a few day after the attacks, with artifacts like the bull horn that was used to deliver the speech, audio recordings, handwritten drafts of the text, and high resolution photographs all on display. I don’t remember this being a significant occurrence at the time, but the museum posits it as a galvanizing moment in the national consciousness and an heroic act that signaled strength and resilience to the nation and to the world. I don’t actually think the museum is trying to mislead visitors by over-playing the ground zero speech. I imagine Bush’s view this was a genuinely important moment in his life, and I think we learn more about the President—though perhaps less about September 11th—by seeing how it is presented in the museum. In this respect, the museum is honestly fulfilling its purpose by preserving the provenance of the president’s thought process.

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Be that as it may, the George W. Bush Presidential Center Museum cannot be said to be perfectly honest and measured in its representation of the Bush years. The omissions are noticeable: no explanation given for the failed occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, no justification for Abu Ghraib or the administration’s tacit approval of torture, no mention of Guantanamo, complete disavowal of the “Axis of Evil” speech, the Hurricane Katrina exhibit included nothing about FEMA’s disastrously inadequate response, nothing about how the financial crisis might have been averted through better regulation of the housing market, or about how the Patriot Act might have jeopardized our civil liberties. The countless blunders and errors in judgement, all of them danced around ever so delicately, as though the place was less a museum and more a white elephant preserve. But if I try to imagine a presidential museum that did plunge itself heedlessly into the controversies and debates of its day, what would it be but a pillbox of political partisanship and bitter antipathies? What lessons would it have to teach beside shameless historical revisionism and pointed bluster? In the story that the Bush library attempts to tell, there is a minor note of reconciliation. One of the more popular features of the museum is an interactive exhibit called the “Decision Points Theater.” Visitors are placed in front of individual video displays and introduced as a group to one of three key crises which President Bush was forced to confront during his presidency. Given a limited set of facts presented by a host of advisors, all in various states of disagreement with one another, you are prompted choose between three courses of action. At the end of the exercise all of the participants’ choices are averaged and a cumulative decision is presented. You are not told if your answer was right or wrong, only what the president decided and what the consequences of his decision were. It is a magnificent device of rhetorical ethos, one in which the president seems to be saying to his critics, you think you could have done better? And for the most part, we do chose the same decisions that the president did. I will say that the decision points are cherry-picked somewhat. Apparently, they removed the decision point about going to war in Iraq, presumably since there is been a good deal of debate about what the administration did and did not know in that situation. While the exercise fails to make Bush’s policy positions seem any less objectionable, it does succeed in making the president a more sympathetic character in the drama of our nation’s history. It really is difficult to make these decisions, when none of your options seems exactly right, and you are keenly aware of the extreme and unforeseeable consequences any decision is bound to trigger. It illuminates just how untenable the position of the president is. No one emerges from the apparatus of power with her or his soul entirely intact.

The Bush museum has other exhibits that create a similar effect of placing you, the average person, at the reins of power. There is, for example, an exact replica of the oval office, painstakingly recreated down to the upholstery and the wallpaper. The only thing missing, we are told, is the bust of Winston Churchill, because they could not get the size right apparently. The museum stations a photographer in the exhibit who can take pictures of you sitting at the president’s desk which can be purchased on your way out in the gift shop. I think this consonance with the average person underscores a lot about what made the Bush presidency appealing. Here we have a man of manifestly average intelligence and ability, friendly in his demeanor and firm in his beliefs, who after a series of improbably political victories finds his himself in the highest office in the land, this proving to all that it does not take that much really to be a great man. More than any other president, I think people saw themselves in George W. Bush, because he was mediocre, like most everybody else.

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Touring the oval office replica I was struck by the room’s artificiality. This was due I think not to the fact of the exhibit’s being a simulacra of the real thing, but more because the real thing has the uncanny feel of a museum exhibit. In every archival photo we have of the oval office, it always look so impeccably maintained. When a president is at the desk there is rarely nothing more in front of him than a single piece of paper an a cup of coffee. Most often we only see presidents using the phone or hosting guests of state. It makes one wonder if any work actually gets done in this room. I would wager that it doesn’t. The oval office is more like a stage upon which the gestures of governance are performed for a unsuspecting constituency. The real labor of statecraft, the schemes, the maneuvering, the intrigue, is played out behind closed doors. In this sense I think the oval office exhibit in the George W. Bush Presidential Center serves an almost identical purpose to its counterpart in the White House in that it functions as a sign or totem of a power whose true countenance remains obscured from view. It and the museum to which it is attached are a fun and palatable surrogate for the complex of secrets which lie hidden in the Center’s restricted archives.

Here I’ve gone on for pages about the Bush Library’s museum exhibits and have largely ignored the central purpose of the place which is preserving and restricting access to the administration’s corpus of records and information. I imagine the museum being a mere tip to a vast iceberg of material concealed beneath the Center’s liminal surface. The public is not allowed access to the archives. Even if you have a stated research interest, you still must arrange an appointment with one of the Center’s 20 or so archivists and submit a request to obtain material from the collection. Of course, this would be rather difficult to do given that there is no comprehensive inventory of the library’s contents. If we look at the Library’s finding aids, we find surprisingly little in the way of documentation. There is no catalog, no metadata. And this for a collection of over 70 million leaves of paper and petabytes of digital information. How are we to know anything about the contents of this mountain of information? The only material that has been digitized and made available on the internet is a smattering of FOIA requests which the library has been compelled to service. I wonder what it must be like to be a librarian to a collection like this. It seems like you’d be more like a prison guard than a guide; that you would spend your days patrolling the vault, protecting its contents from the intrusions of sunlight and human thought.

Thus I concluded my trip to the George W. Bush Presidential Center, great monument to the old king. As we drove back through Highland Park on our coach bus, the driver, who was black, told us about how he had been pulled over by police while scouting the route the day before. He said they wanted to know if he had business in the community. We rode back to our suburban hotel, through the sprawl of Dallas and surrounding communities, this most American of places. I recommend visiting the Bush Library next time your are in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. It is something to do in a city famously empty and sedate for its monstrous size.

Point of Beginning

Located off of Route 39, straddling the border of Pennsylvania and Ohio, there is a short, granite marker indicating the beginning point of the U.S. Public Land Survey. The marker appears to have two metal signs on either side of it. I can’t tell what they say from Google street view, but presumably these are separate plaques erected by the Ohio and Pennsylvania Historical Society’s respectively to describe the significance of the spot. The borders of West Virginia (formerly Virginia), Pennsylvania, and Ohio meet at this location. It is also the arbitrary point of origin from which the government’s survey of the entire American West begins. Inaugurated in 1785 by a U.S. Ordinance entitled “for ascertaining the mode of disposing of lands in the western territory,” the Land Survey was the first mathematically designed rectangular land survey system ever conducted in the modern era. As stipulated, the survey was to divide the land into townships six square miles in size laid out along east and west and north and south base lines derived from a staked point of beginning. These townships could then be subdivided in 36 separate square mile sections, which could be further subdivided into minor rectangles of any desired size; and so it was with this frame of measurement that all property west of Pennsylvania and Virginia was given boundary and made salable.


On September 30th of 1785, the Geographer of the United States Thomas Hutchins led a party across the Ohio River to the Point of Beginning and initiated the survey. Hutchins measured a baseline running 42 miles west into the wilderness. Due to threat of Indian attack from the North, Hutchins team only surveyed lands to the south of the line. This first tract to be mapped and platted out was called the Seven Ranges. The United States government parceled out the ranges and sold them at auction for a minimum price of $1 per acre. Such land sales would be a principle source of revenue for the federal government for much of the 19th century.

The effect that the rectangular land survey system has had on shaping and transforming the American landscape really cannot be understated. Not only has it served as a catalyst for westward expansion and for the peopling of the West, it is also why roads in the United States are constructed to run in straight lines—sometime in direct defiance of topography—and why they intersect at right angles. It is why the Midwest is a patchwork of rectangular fields and why the furrows in those fields are plowed as a succession of parallel lines. The rectangular land survey is a classic product of Enlightenment thinking: rigidly geometric and mathematical, an indisputable and endlessly reproducible demarcation of property emanating from the intersection of legality and engineering. It wrests with nature and forces it to submit to definition. Its maps are not maps of the land but maps of how the land might be used; they are procedural guides for making the land conform to human will and for dividing the plunder fairly among its owners.

The marker found on the side of the road on Route 39 is actually not the original Point of Beginning. The true point was submerged by damming of the Ohio and is no somewhere in the middle of the river. One assumes though that it could still be found from its recorded coordinates and by tracing the original geographer’s line and the state border to their point where they meet.

Ft. Recovery

Near the headwaters of the Wabash in central western Ohio, there is a small farming town that has grown up out of one of the frontier forts established by Gen. Anthony Wayne and the Legion of the United States during their campaign against the Western Confederation Indians of old Northwest. In the summer of 1793, Wayne ordered that a fort be built on the same site where Arthur St. Claire had been routed two years earlier and his regiment nearly decimated. 632 men lost their lives in that battle, an astounding 69% of St. Claire’s total force of 920. Almost everyone else was wounded. Reports suggest that only 24 men escaped the fighting unscathed. Added to this, all of the camp followers (women, servants, laborers), possibly as many as 200 people, were slaughtered by the Western Confederation and scalped along with the soldiers. The effect of the defeat on the nation’s morale must have been devastating. A quarter of the entire U.S. Army had been lost in a single conflict. As gesture of defiance, Wayne occupied the old battlefield and built fortifications so that the position could be defended. This was Ft. Recovery, a hastily constructed stockade with a detachment of 250 men and several small artillery pieces. The Western Confederacy met Wayne’s gesture with one of their own: the Indians marched on the fort with a force of more than 2000 Shawnee and Miami warriors. For two days the men of the fort endured successive assaults from the Indians. Unable to scale the walls and lacking heavy guns to knock them down, the warriors of the Wabash confederacy finally withdrew. It was been speculated that the Indian’s loss at Ft. Recovery was the real precipitating factor that ultimately led to the disintegration of the tribal alliance. We know that after the battle, leadership of the Western Confederacy’s warriors passed from Chief Little Turtle of the Miami to the Shawnee chief Blue Jacket. This transfer of power away from the Miami, who were more numerous and a more senior member in the confederacy, to the Shawnee might have caused some allegiances to dissolve among the tribes. That might account for the Confederacy’s lack of temerity at Fallen Timbers where they had gone into retreat after suffering only a few dozen casualties.

Today, Ft. Recovery is a small, inconspicuous town of about 1400 people located in the fertile agricultural belt of Ohio’s till plain. There is a well-appointed historical museum that offers the standard of mix of artifact exhibits, verbose expository panels, and creepy mannequin dioramas. According to its monthly newsletters, the museum hosts regular history lectures and fund-raising auctions. There is a replica palisade and tower on the museum grounds. This was built in the 1930’s by a public works crew that employed out-of-work men during the Depression. I wonder what it must have been like for unemployed carpenters to construct this fragment of frontier fort. It’s just a single wall, which I think is significant in that, if it is to function as a fort, you are neither inside it nor outside it, or perhaps you are both inside and outside, defending and attacking. Building it must have felt so purposeless.

In the middle of town, occupying the village square, is a tall obelisk memorializing those fallen in St. Claire’s defeat. Beneath the obelisk, there is actually a mausoleum that contains the soldiers’ remains. As the story goes, in 1851, a group of boys were playing along the banks of the Wabash and came upon some human bones. Area residents dug at the spot and discovered hundreds of skeletons interred together in mass graves. It was determined that these were the remains of the soldiers who had perished in the Ft. Recovery battles, both in 1791 and 1794. A ceremony was held to rebury the bones. By all accounts, the event was very large. Thousands came to pay honor to the dead. Today, the battle is just an obscure fact of American history, but to Ohio pioneers it must still have been a very potent memory. They owed their land and their homes to the men who fought in these battles. After the burial, there was desire to see a monument built over the spot to commemorate the dead, but the years wore on with nothing being decided and no money raised to begin construction. As an attempt to renew interest in the project, a large imitation monument was erected on the main intersection of town. It was a wooden pyramid, about 35 feet in height, painted yellow and coated in sand. A gas pipe was run through the center so that a flame could be lit at the pyramid’s apex. This test monument collapsed after a few years in a windstorm. Construction on the permanent monument—the granite obelisk—was not begun until 1912, 120 years after the battle. Perhaps this is an example of how victories are better remembered than defeats, but monument is not so much a memorial to the battles but to the sacrifice of the soldiers, whose lives were squandered despite having fought bravely. Yet even more than being a tribute to the fallen, I think it can be viewed as a shrine and benediction of the country’s relentless campaign of westward expansion, one of many throughout the Midwest that stand as milestones in time and space on the path of American triumphalism. Today, in the late stages of empire, we tend these monuments which stand in juxtaposition to the ongoing decay and mounting inconsequentiality of the places that surround them. A question I ask myself is what relevance such monument have in the communities where they are located. I think the answer is that they mean quite a lot. In larger, more vital cities, the community’s identity changes drastically from generation to generation. The meaning of an Ohio town remains relatively static from year to year, decade to decade, generation to generation. The only change is change caused by decline. New history is not often made, and so old history becomes more salient and enshrined.

Fallen Timbers

The Battle of Fallen Timbers Historical Site in Maumee, Ohio, just southwest of Toledo is an appropriate place to begin this Ohio travelogue since this is probably the place and memorialized time in history that Ohio began, at least the Ohio that is available to memory. In the years following the Revolutionary War, settlers from Virginia began to migrate through the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky and were met with violent resistance from the Indian tribes that resided in the area. These were tribes that had sided with the British during the Revolution and remained hostile toward the United States. Seeking to defend their territory from colonization and intimidate settlers into returning east, the tribes carried out raids against Kentuckians who had settled along the Ohio River. Over the course of the 1780s, the Ohio Indians reportedly killed upwards of fifteen hundred settlers. During this time it became a mark of distinction among the Kentuckians to be considered an Indian killer. Settlers banded into local militias and engaged in retaliatory actions such as burning villages and crops and terrorizing non-combatants. These Indian wars of the 1780s amounted a bloody civil conflict, each side trading atrocities of escalating in brutality.

With ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1788, the new federal government could finally allocate funds for a standing army defend American Sovereignty over the West. To pay off war debts from the Revolution, the U.S. government has begun selling land north of the Ohio River; consequently, security of the frontier and protection of property claims in that region became the Republic’s top priority.

General Josiah Harmar

In October of 1790, General Josiah Harmar marched north from Fort Washington (present-day Cincinnati) with a force of about 340 regular soldiers and 1,000 Kentucky and Pennsylvania militiamen to subdue the Miami village of Kekionga in Northern Indiana and to build a winter fort there. Harmar was unaware that the Ohio tribes had joined in alliance and would be fighting him in concert. When he arrived in Kekionga in late October, he was astonished to find a force of over 1,000 warriors waiting there to meet him. The Indians fell on Harmar while his forces were divided. An entire detachment of American regulars were lost in a conflict that came to be know as the Battle of the Pumpkin Fields, so named because the steam rising off of the skulls of the freshly scalped soldiers reminded the Indians of cooked squash steaming in the Autumn air. Dispirited at the ineptitude of their commander, Harmar’s militias deserted and he was forced to withdraw across the Ohio.

The resounding failure of this first Ohio campaign was a serious blow to the credibility of Washington’s fledgling government. Angry over the defeat, he ordered the Kentucky Governor Arthur St. Clair to lead a force himself into Ohio and to establish a permanent fort to defend the territory. St. Clair set out late in 1791 with an ill-equipped force that had not been sufficiently trained for wilderness fighting. They were shadowed by the Indians and forced into skirmishes throughout the march. On November 4th, while in camp near the headwaters of the Wabash River, St. Claire’s was surrounded by the entire force of the Western Confederation, a force composed of warriors from more than a dozen different tribes. St. Claire was hastily pressed into battle and in three hours of intense fighting, 2/3 of his force had been killed and the other third wounded. The American only escaped absolute annihilation with a last ditch bayonet charge which broke the Indians’ line and allowed the remainder of the force to escape into the forest.

St. Claire’s defeat was so severe that it prompted an investigation of Washington’s mishandling of the Indian Wars. These early military setbacks very likely called into doubt the country’s capacity to defend itself and to secure its territorial claims. Sensing that vulnerability, the British, still ensconced in Canada, crossed Lake Erie and built forts in Ohio where they could supply arms to the Indians and potentially exploit America’s weakening claim. Faced with a rather desperate situation, Washington recalled Anthony Wayne, one of his more successful commanders from the Revolutionary War, to lead a new force into Ohio and shatter the Western Confederation. Wayne mustered a new army in Pittsburgh and, rather than immediately marching into war, he spent of the summer of 1792 drilling his soldiers and training them in new tactics. Wayne devised a new system of small force warfare wherein infantry, cavalry and artillery would be grouped into the same battalions rather than commanded as separate units on the battlefield, as was traditionally done, and led to battle as a working unit. This made the overall force much more flexible and more capable of defending itself in the event of an ambush. Wayne led his new army, which he called with conscious grandiosity the Legion of the United States, into Ohio the summer of 1793. He marched up the Great Miami River, building and garrisoning forts along the way. The American’s managed to defend these positions into the winter. Then, that following summer, the Western Confederacy fielded its largest force yet, more than 2,000 braves, to besiege the new forts and to confront Wayne’s main force. The Legion of the United States met the Western Confederacy army on the banks of the lower Maumee on August 20th. The battlefield is called Fallen Timbers because a windstorm had blown down a stand of trees on the spot, and the Indians believed the felled trunks would limit Wayne’s mobility. This, however, proved not to be the case. The Americans flanked Western Confederacy with cavalry and very quickly broke its line with a heavy bayonet charge. Fighting was very brief; only a few causalities were taken on either side. More effective was Wayne’s show of strength which succeeded in demoralizing the less warlike tribes in the confederacy. This combined with British Canadia’s sudden withdrawal of support caused a break up of the Western Confederacy which remained in disarray until the ascendency of Tecumseh fifteen years later.

After the battle, Wayne built a line of forts along the Maumee which would defend the northern marches of the Indian country and secure the south part of Ohio for settlement. Americans began clearing and planting properties along the main rivers and then moved further into the interior, and, within just nine years after Wayne’s victory, Ohio was given statehood and admitted into the Union.

The Ohio Historical Society maintains a small memorial to the Battle of Fallen Timbers off of Route 24 just outside the city limits of Maumee. It features a bronze statue depicting General Wayne flanked by a Native American figure to his right and a Kentucky frontiersman to his left. The group stands atop a stone pedestal and is positioned at the end of a tree-lined arbor about 100 meters in length. Near the statue group is a boulder called Turkey Foot Rock. According to legend, as the Indians were in retreat, Chief Me-sa-sa of the Ottawa leapt atop the rock to rally his warriors away from the battlefield. He was struck by a musket ball and died beside the stone. For many years following the battle, locals would find offerings of beef, corn and barley on the boulder.

Across the highway lies the actual battlefield grounds, which has not yet open to the public. There is a thicket of trees on the site surrounded by open field and suburban tact housing. On the battlefield’s west edge is an enormous mall and shopping center called “Shops at Fallen Timbers.” Constructed in 2007, the development is termed by its owner and developer, a “ retail lifestyle center,” a designation that apparently indicates combination of traditional retail stores with leisure amenities oriented toward more affluent consumers. I’ve actually been to this place. I was visiting family and we dined at the P.F. Chang’s restaurant located in the Fallen Timbers complex very soon after the property opened for business. As I remember, it was in the middle of winter, in the dead of night, we were possibly having Christmas Eve dinner. It was a very cold night, with ice and snow, and I was not able to see any neighboring development beyond the parking lot. The place impressed me as being very desolate and isolated. It felt like an outpost of regimented and rehearsed activity in an ocean of nothing. It was an aggressive assertion of will, that it should exist in a place where nothing suggested that it should, not dissimilar, in many respects, to the real Battle of Fallen Timbers.