Library Rocket Science

A scholar hints at how we might destroy Presidential libraries. Writing in the Chicago Tribune, art history professor Benjamin Hufbauer grouses about how friendly the libraries’s museums are to the Presidents whose names their bear:

Although the archives of presidential libraries were for several decades largely above politics, because the National Archives ran them professionally, the museums in presidential libraries were still uncritical shrines. Although they are supposed to be history museums professionally run by the government, they are more often extended campaign commercials in museum form, because presidents and their supporters essentially control the content. As Newsweek observed at the opening of the Lyndon Johnson Library in Austin, Texas, in 1971: “Inside the library the visage of LBJ is as ubiquitous as Chairman Mao’s in Peking.” The museums in presidential libraries tend to sweep major scandals under the rug. For instance, at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif., there is no exhibit explaining the Iran-contra affair. It is true that most of the museums get better after a president dies, and the power of his supporters slowly fades, but this process usually takes generations. President George Bush is now planning the most expensive presidential library ever built. The Roosevelt Library cost about $400,000 when it was completed in 1941 (about $8 million in today’s dollars). In contrast, the George W. Bush library is expected to cost more than $200 million. And that money can be raised from individuals, corporations and even foreign governments, without limitation or disclosure.

President George W. Bush poses for photos on his departure Tuesday, March 11, 2008 from Nashville, Tenn., following his address to the National Religious Broadcasters convention. White House photo by Chris GreenbergNot to mention the government-run Clinton Library in Little Rock, where visitors learn that the President’s impeachment was a Republican attempt to overturn the 2004 election. Okay then, professor, here’s what we do. Make sure President and Mrs. Bush, their family, and all potential contributors to that $200 million fund know that the museum in the Bush Library will be designed and overseen by a committee composed of a representative sample of the 80% of scholars who pronounced his Presidency a failure in 2005. Be sure to reprint the profs’s most blistering assessments in all fundraising materials. Why wait for the power of these nefarious contributors to fade as they and the Presidents they care about die? Let’s promise right now that the museum in the Bush library will rip the scab off, display warts and all, and express the unimpeachable wisdom of the elite of America’s colleges and university faculties. Say all that, and then sit back and watch the money flow in.

Back at the National Archives, officials will be waiting nervously for the ribbon-cutting at the Bush library down at SMU. Until its archive wing is open for business, NARA will be stuck paying rent in a warehouse somewhere on the outskirts of Dallas to look after a gazillion pages of records, tens of thousands of gifts, and other historial materials. After Watergate, the government decided to keep it all. The Presidential library system, pairing a friendly museum with a government archive, solves the housing problem but not the problem of scholars’s tender sensiblities. Maybe it’s time for the federal government to stop selling scholars out just to get these gaudy, though admittedly free, storage spaces. Besides, I’ll bet those Texas tycoons, in the true spirit of public service, will leap to relieve the taxpayers of the cost of that suburban Dallas warehouse. Who cares that the Library’s museum will kick the stuffing out of their friend the President? Why, we’re darned lucky to pay that $200 million. Come right out and call him a callous warmonger and we’ll give y’all $400 million!

If President Bush’s friends aren’t so enlightened, NARA can keep the records in– keep them…Well, that’s the problem, isn it? Which is why Professor Hufbauer probably won’t be asked to chair the design committee for the Bush museum, nor should he be. Among the original public-private partnerships, Presidential libraries balance federal responsibilities to care for historical records against local sensibilities, including pride in a home town or home state’s favorite son or daughter. Scholars can visit the archives and write whatever they want. If museum visitors don’t want to see Presidents treated graciously, they don’t have to come. But you know what? They do.