The first time I visited the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, two things were immediately clear: it was spectacular; it was a lot more monument than museum, a tribute to the president’s deeds, not his disasters.
Well, of course it was. Did we really think Mr. Reagan’s friends and supporters, who ponied up $60 million to build the place, considered including a Hall of Shame where we could view memorabilia from the Iran-Contra affair, the savings and loan crisis and other assorted missteps during his administration?
That’s not what presidential libraries do.
I doubt if Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress is hanging in the Clinton Library. I don’t think the picture of President Bush declaring victory in Iraq as he stood in front of a banner that declared “Mission Accomplished” is on display in his edifice. After all, the war lasted another eight years and counted among its victims his personal and political reputation.
It took the Nixon Library nearly two decades to come to grips with the Watergate scandal.
A friend who hailed from Upstate New York once told me he visited the Millard Fillmore Museum in Erie County and said that the docents there could convince you that the little-remembered Fillmore belonged in the pantheon of great presidents.
If you’re seeking a warts-and-all version of history, look somewhere else.
Clinton himself called the libraries the “latest grandest example of the eternal struggle of former presidents to rewrite history.”
We mention all this because it won’t be long before another presidential monument begins to rise, this one to honor Barack Obama, who will be checking out of the White House soon.
There’s no official locale yet but if I was a betting man, I’d place my cash on Chicago. Hawaii, where the president was born, is in the running. Columbia University, where the President received his undergraduate degree, pitched a West Harlem site in New York City.
The campaigning within the city of Chicago has already begun. Proposed locations include the University of Chicago, where Obama taught constitutional law for 12 years; Chicago State University; vacant land that was part of Chicago’s failed bid for the 2016 Olympics; and a former steel plant near Lake Michigan being pitched by a real estate developer.
The University of Illinois-Chicago also is pitching potential locations on and off campus.
Groups that work with troubled and disadvantaged youths are joining campaigns to draw the library to their neighborhoods, according to the Chicago Tribune. Not only do they see a presidential library as an economic engine that would generate jobs and revitalization, they view it as a catalyst for social change, a means to curb violence and instill hope.
Whatever the outcome, we can be sure that the library will focus on the president’s rightful place in history as the first African-American president. That it will salute the passage and implementation of Obamacare; that Michelle Obama will be recognized for her work on behalf of childhood nutrition and her support for a nationwide philanthropic effort to raise millions of dollars to help military families in need.
We will see their china, her dresses, his limo, their kids. We’ll see a replica of the Oval Office.
But we won’t see any bad news.
Don’t expect any photos of John Boehner or Mitch McConnell, at least not in a flattering light. Or Clint Eastwood for that matter. Don’t expect any displays on Benghazi. Or articles on accusations that the IRS targeted opposition political groups. Don’t expect any explorations of the origins and future of the Tea Party.
We wonder if his birth certificate will be on display.
If there’s a downside to all this orchestrated hero worship, it’s the cost of building what amounts to latter-day pyramids. Harry Truman’s cost $1.7 million. George W. Bush, however, reportedly raised close to $500 million to build his.
Some estimates for the Obama Library peg the cost at more than $500 million.
And while the construction is privately funded, the National Park Service is responsible for the operation of the libraries at a cost of some $75 million, paid for by you and me.
It would be nice if sanity prevailed and we build modest structures devoted to scholarship and research. If people want to see the White House china, they can look on the Smithsonian website.
But reason and good sense is long gone. A New York Times story said that an investment banker who is familiar with the president says Obama is “show[ing] more ‘good will’ to the business community” because very shortly he will have to raise hundreds of millions of dollars from them.
I’m betting that won’t get a mention in the library, either.