The Obama library lands on Chicago

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tags: Chicago, Obama, Obama library



Rick Perlstein is the author of "Nixonland."

... The notion of a “presidential library” was invented by Franklin D. Roosevelt, who donated a handsome building beside his childhood home in Hyde Park, New York, as well as the entire documentary record of his presidency, to the people of the United States in 1941. Roosevelt proposed that Americans must “learn from the past that they can gain in judgment in creating their own future.” His idealism was eventually written into the books of law, in a series of statutes culminating in the post-Watergate Presidential Records Act of 1978. Presidents who wish to honor FDR’s precedent and build libraries of their own must do so via funds raised by private foundations on land not owned by the federal government, and then must turn over those buildings to the people, to be operated by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). They must also establish an endowment to ensure the library’s future fiscal health, relieving the taxpayers of the potential burden of their upkeep.

Like so many things Obamian, when it comes to transparency, fantasies of reform turn to ashes in our mouths.

That was the original idea; it has worked out very badly. In an eye-opening new book called The Last Campaign: How Presidents Rewrite History, Run for Posterity, and Enshrine Their Legacies, Anthony Clark, a whistle-blowing former staffer for the toothless congressional committee charged with NARA’s oversight, observes: “We once held the office of president, as well as its occupant, in high regard. As we have lowered our opinions of both, presidential libraries, consequently, have grown larger and more powerful—and, not incidentally, less truthful.” In seven cases—Reagan, Ford, Nixon, Eisenhower, Truman, Roosevelt, and Hoover—their role is Pharaonic: the ex-presidents are buried there.

Roosevelt had dedicated a small area at his library for a sort of museum to display some of his favorite artifacts and gifts. From Roosevelt’s death onward, however, presidential museums of increasing hubris and size would become the tail that wagged the dog. Herbert Hoover built a second library “after seeing his successors create ever-larger public memorials to themselves”; LBJ insisted that the basement and sub-basement of his alabaster temple on the University of Texas campus be labeled “Floor 1” and “Floor 2” so he could claim it was a ten- rather than eight-story structure. “Even though the Archives operates the museums,” Clark notes, “the agency doesn’t really have a say in the exhibits’ content, scope, or appearance. The president’s supporters design, create, and mostly pay for them, while enjoying the government’s stamp of approval, and the (free, to them) services of government archivists, curators, exhibit specialists, technicians, and others.”

The foundations set up to build them, meanwhile, did not die but came to enjoy everlasting life, as “political organizations whose goals . . . often conflict with NARA’s legislative requirements.” They raise lots of funds—but they are not required to devote a penny of that horde to serve the institutions’ statutory raison d’être of preserving and disseminating public records. Indeed, they often do the opposite. When I learned that General Electric had donated the full run of General Electric Theater, the TV show the fortieth president hosted between 1953 and 1962, I asked the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library when I might be able to review the series for my own research. Never, I was told, because they were donated for the exclusive use of the Reagan museum. ...




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