New Republic Editorial: Donors to presidential libraries should be disclosed

Roundup: Talking About History

... Early reports suggest that George W. Bush plans to raise roughly $500 million for his presidential library, which will likely be based at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and possibly include a public-policy institute. According to The New York Daily News, "Bush loyalists have already identified wealthy heiresses, Arab nations, and captains of industry as mega' donors." It's a strange wrinkle in the law: The president can raise half a billion dollars--even while he's still in office--without any obligation to disclose any of it.

Simply to find out who has donated to the ten existing presidential libraries is no easy task. In 2004, Josh Gerstein of The New York Sun went out to Little Rock and found a list of donors on a touch-screen computer on the third floor of President Clinton's $165 million library. That was the only way to get the names. Among those listed as "Trustees," who gave at least $1 million: the Saudi royal family and three Saudi businessmen; the deputy prime minister of Lebanon; and the governments of Dubai, Kuwait, Qatar, Brunei, and Taiwan. Foreign nationals frequently donate to presidential libraries--presumably because they are barred from giving to campaigns.

Tracking down the donors to the George W. Bush Presidential Library is even more daunting. Funds for it are apparently raised by a private charity under the care of a lawyer in Houston. (The lawyer did not return requests for comment.) It's also unknown whether the president has begun soliciting donations himself, although the historian Richard Norton Smith has noted that a president's power to raise money wanes in retirement: "On January 20, the light gets switched off." And it's not just this president: There is a decent chance that Hillary Clinton could become president in 2009, and, if wealthy donors are free to give money to her husband's library without disclosure, the opportunity for abuse becomes very real.

The history of presidential libraries is, after all, littered with dodgy contributions. In 1993, George H.W. Bush pardoned Edwin L. Cox, Jr., who had pled guilty five years earlier to bank fraud. Eleven months later, Cox's father pledged support for the Bush library and is now listed as a donor in the "$100,000 to $250,000" range. Likewise, in the late '90s, Denise Rich reportedly pledged $450,000 to Clinton's library at the same time her ex-husband, Marc Rich, was seeking a pardon for racketeering and tax- evasion charges.

Presidents, of course, are entitled to libraries. But there is no reason why the fund-raising process need be so secretive. The House has already passed a bill that would set clear disclosure rules for library donations. True, it wouldn't ban donations from foreign governments or even prohibit presidents from soliciting them. But, if George W. Bush (or First Spouse Bill Clinton) is sitting in the White House begging princes and ministers for money, at least we'd know about it.

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