A monument to a peripatetic life Roots: The Bush Presidential Library Center, set to open later this year at the Texas A&M; University campus, is where the peripatetic George Bush wants to put down roots for good.


COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Americans are a restless people, and George Bush is clearly no exception: Over the years, he and his wife, Barbara, have moved at least 30 times. Their final move will be way out here, in rural East Texas.

The Bush Presidential Library Center, perched on the fringe of the Texas A&M; University campus, will begin greeting visitors later this year. It will include an airy two-bedroom apartment and private offices that the Bushes plan to use.

College Station, a university town of 50,000, is worlds apart from the Bushes' old addresses in Washington, New York and Beijing. The nearest city, Houston, is 100 miles away. As David Alsobrook, the archivist overseeing the cataloging of 38 million pages of Bush papers puts it, "We're not exactly on the beaten path."

If stereotypes are to be believed, Texas A&M; is at the other end of the academic and social ladder from Yale, the school attended by generations of Bush family members. Old Eli has been a training ground for the nation's ruling class. A&M; enjoys a reputation of a different sort.

Jokes about dimwitted Aggies are a Texas staple. Did you hear the one about the Aggie terrorist? They told him to blow up the governor's car, and he burned his lips on the tailpipe.

A&M; was long known as an all-male military academy. More than 2,000 students still wear khaki uniforms to class, though the cadet corps now is coeducational. Agriculture remains a popular major; the Bush library site used to be the hog experiment station.

In truth, A&M;'s hayseed image is increasingly out-of-date. For 20 years, the school has been reaching for academic respectability, spending oil revenue from state lands to recruit talented faculty and students. It now ranks among the top 50 schools in the nation, according to the latest U.S. News and World Report survey.

Landing the Bush Center in 1991 was another step in A&M;'s rise. In a bidding war with two Houston universities, the Aggies offered Bush the best package -- the largest site, plus a Bush graduate school of government and a promise that he wouldn't have to raise any of the $85 million construction money himself.

Bush was also swayed, says Don Wilson, the center's executive director, by "the conservative nature of the school and its extensive military tradition. He feels very comfortable here."

Future burial site

So comfortable, in fact, that he wants to spend eternity at A&M.; After attending Richard M. Nixon's funeral in 1994, Bush quietly informed library officials that he and his wife would like to be buried on the grounds of the center. Legislation needed to establish a cemetery on state property whisked through the Texas legislature. Gov. George W. Bush, their eldest son, signed it into law.

The remains of their daughter Robin, who died of leukemia at age 3 in the early 1950s, are to be moved to the Texas gravesite from a family plot in Connecticut. Millie, the Bushes' dog who died Monday at their summer home in Maine, may also wind up in College Station, much as Fala, Franklin D. Roosevelt's dog, is buried near his master. A Bush family spokesman said yesterday that no decision has yet been made.

"It's very common for presidents to be buried at their library," notes Wilson. Of the nine other presidential libraries, four have gravesites nearby -- Herbert Hoover's in West Branch, Iowa; Roosevelt's in Hyde Park, N.Y.; Harry Truman's in Independence, Mo.; and Dwight Eisenhower's in Abilene, Kan.

But those also happen to be either birthplaces or hometowns. (Nixon, too, is buried at his birthplace in Yorba Linda, Calif., site of the Nixon museum. His presidential materials, however, remain at the National Archives in College Park, Md.)

Bush has no prior connection to College Station. He was born in Massachusetts and grew up in Greenwich, Conn. He now lives in Houston, his voting residence for years.

But his strongest ties, say those who know him, are to his mansion at Walker's Point, on the Maine coast, where he has spent all but a handful of his 73 summers. And it was there that Wilson and others expected him to be buried.

"The real George Bush, to this day, is to be seen spiritually at Walker's Point," says biographer Herbert S. Parmet, author of the forthcoming book, "Lone Star Yankee," which captures the duality of Bush's life in its title. Parmet, who grew sympathetic to his subject during his research, calls the request to be buried in College Station "a true symbolic gesture," one last attempt by Bush to establish his Texan bona fides.

A Bush spokesman, Jim McGrath, says the former president made the choice for two reasons: "First, he's a Texan. Second, the library is going to convey the history not only of his presidency but of his life. He wants to see it succeed in the future, and he wants to be close to it when it does."

The unpublicized decision could add a new dimension to the question: Who is the real George Bush? It is a puzzle he appears content to let others solve. Bush has no plans to write his memoirs, beyond the autobiography he co-authored in 1987 and a forthcoming book about foreign policy with Brent Scowcroft, his national security adviser.

Scholars, and anyone else wishing to understand the nation's 41st president, will have to trek to College Station. Library officials expect more than a quarter-million visitors annually, once the building is dedicated this fall.

Car, plane, parachute

The museum is a monument to a peripatetic life. The displays include a crimson 1947 Studebaker, like the one George and Barbara Bush, proud offspring of the Eastern Establishment, drove to their new home in Midland, Texas. Suspended in mid-air is a single-engine Grumman TBM Avenger aircraft, the model Bush was flying when he was downed over the Pacific in World War II. And, yes, there will be parachute gear and a video from his recent sky diving adventure.

A two-hour drive away, at the Lyndon B. Johnson library in Austin, tourists can step into a replica of the president's Oval Office at the White House. At Bush's request, his museum will feature, instead, reproductions of the president's office aboard Air Force One and his private study at Camp David in the Maryland mountains.

Both are places where Bush made many of his most important decisions, museum officials explain. The exhibits will include $5 million worth of interactive videos. There will be a model of the Capitol dome (Bush served two terms in the House of Representatives), plus Scud and Patriot missiles, symbols of the Persian Gulf war, the Bush presidency's high point.

"Every time he comes here, he says he feels like he's going to his second home," says Alsobrook. "We have a living president and a living former first lady that are actually going to be here a lot, in residence, living and working here."

Ninety acres of flat, grassy farmland, now being landscaped with $1.5 million worth of new trees and shrubs, surround the center's three main buildings. Nearby, under a grove of mature live oaks, probably within earshot of Kyle Stadium on a raucous Aggie football Saturday, is the spot where George Bush will finally put down roots for good.

Pub Date: 5/21/97

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