Welcome to the world of presidential libraries, where the agenda is always the same: Prove that the figurehead in question was, without a doubt, one of the best U.S. Presidents to ever hold the office. Whether or not you agree with that assertion will definitively shape your experience of the George W. Bush Presidential Library.
The tour starts with a bang as you enter the contemporary equivalent of a Greek temple, a $250 million building designed by starchitect Robert A. M. Stern. It's every bit as majestic as the U.S. Capitol or the White House. In fact, it may do one better—there’s a soundtrack of crooning violins and triumphant trumpets greeting visitors. It sounds like something from a Steven Spielberg movie. Then, before you meet the Bushes—or even purchase your ticket—you'll notice that you're in the middle of the "gift hall" to view the swag the First Couple was presented by foreign dignitaries over the years—impressive, if sometimes weird, particularly the downright erotic snake necklace President Berlusconi of Italy presented to Laura Bush.
The central exhibition is highly interactive with dozens of video clips, photos, documents (such as a page from the President’s schedule which shows his day fully packed by 10-minute increments), and artifacts such as a steel beam from the World Trade Center twisted by the 9/11 collapse. Interestingly, the full cast of the Bush years has been edited. Condoleezza Rice, both of Bush’s Chiefs of Staff (Andrew Card and Joshua Bolton), and the Bush family narrate videos and show up in exhibits but despite what Americans know about reality, former Vice President Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and political operative Karl Rove are conspicuously absent, barely making appearances even in archival videos.
The museum's two big crowdpleasers are a perfect replica of the Oval Office (for your own photo op) and the "Decision Points Theater" named after Bush's memoir. The latter contains a "situation room" simulation in which participants watch videos of actors explaining the biggest issues that confronted President Bush during his tenure. Position papers are flashed on screens, snippets of video are shown, and then visitors choose between two courses of action. Neither option is the optimal one, in the mind of this reviewer, but they do reveal the mindset of his administration. And then it's off to the gift shop—your own "gift hall"—which carries dozens of items commemorating both the Bushes and the office of the president, from Christmas tree ornaments to coffee table books. Between 1,500 and 3,000 people have visited the Library daily since it opened in May of 2013, and its massive size (14,000 square feet) keeps it from feeling crowded. Still, if you'd like to have it to yourself, get here when it first opens, before the buses arrive.