This past week marked the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum at Southern Methodist University. “Oh happy day,” announced the former president. And as is the convention with such dedications, it was a grand celebration of the past president’s legacy. And for the most part photojournalists followed the script, featuring numerous images of the five living presidents collected together in fraternal solidarity, as well as snapshots of various library exhibits such as the dedication to “free people” shown above, or in photographs of Barney and Miss Beazley’s food dishes and the former president’s baseball collection.
The dominant theme for the library is “What would you have done?” inviting visitors to participate with interactive displays allowing them to second guess the president’s various controversial policy decisions, from the search for weapons of mass destruction to the handling of Hurricane Katrina to addressing the debacle on Wall Street, and more. Ironically enough, such judgments were rarely if ever solicited during the president’s two administrations and when they were expressed by various publics (or “free peoples”) they were systematically ignored. But it is of course impossible to visualize something that did not occur—and in any case is not featured in the museum—and so the best that photojournalists were able to do was to call attention to the glitz and glamour.
One photograph, however, broke through the veneer of praise and acclaim that dominated the day’s festivities, although it was not featured in very many places.
The prosthetic leg belongs to Army 1st Lt. Melissa Stockwell (Ret.), the first female American soldier to lose a limb during the war in Iraq. She is reciting the Pledge of Allegiance with the Bush family standing in the background. Interestingly enough, neither of the former first ladies is looking directly at Lt. Stockwell, each carefully averting their eyes, while former President George W. Bush appears to be staring at her with a befuddled and confused look on his face. We can only imagine what he might actually be thinking, but his gaze clearly directs our attention to her star spangled, red, white and blue prosthesis, an ersatz symbol of the personal and private cost of the war in Iraq that contrasts with the shape and contour of her remaining, normal leg.
We cannot see Lt. Stockwell’s face, but perhaps that is altogether appropriate, for while she is without doubt a hero and the cost to her has been inestimable, she is not alone. Indeed, she stands literally to represent the more than 1,300 military personnel who have lost an arm or a leg (with more than 40 triple amputees and 5 quadruple amputees) in Iraq or Afghanistan (and with more than 63% from the war in Iraq alone). Perhaps this photograph and those statistics should be featured at the museum exhibit which announces: “No stockpiles of W.M.D. were found.”
After all, if a “free people” are truly to “set the course of history” they should have access to all of the facts.
Credit: Allison V. Smith/NYT; Alex Wong/Getty Images