What’s wrong with presidential libraries? 

Anthony Clark’s The Last Campaign explores the troubling history of these wonky historical institutions.

click to enlarge The Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock, Arkansas. Presidential libraries have grown exponentially since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s was constructed. - DANNY JOHNSTON
  • The Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock, Arkansas. Presidential libraries have grown exponentially since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s was constructed.
  • Danny Johnston

In spring 2003, Anthony Clark wrote a graduate-school term paper on presidential libraries that his professor said ought to be a book. Twelve years later, he published The Last Campaign: How Presidents Rewrite History, Run for Posterity, and Enshrine their Legacies. It's the surprising story of the disparity between what presidential libraries are supposed to be and the spin factories and event venues they've become.

From 2009 to 2011, Clark served on the staff of the House Committee on Oversight and Governmental Reform, where he planned hearings and oversaw investigations of the libraries and the National Archives, which operates them. There are now 14 presidential libraries, including Obama's. Among Clark's observations: attendance typically falls off a cliff after the opening year. Clark spoke with me last week by phone about the history of these presidential monuments, the foundations that control them, and what we know so far about the one coming to Chicago.

What sparked your interest in these wonky historical institutions?

The first one I had seen was Franklin Roosevelt's. I thought it was just going to be an historic site. And I was struck by how convincing the exhibits tried to be. It wasn't just like "Washington slept here." It was, if you look at these 500 artifacts—if you read his report cards and his mother's notes, if you look at the locks of his hair—if you see and feel and experience all this, then you can understand what a great person he was, what a great president he was. That's universal in all the presidential libraries. It is a campaign. It's an attempt to sell. And once I got to Reagan and Nixon, boy, that was a whole different level of that campaign. It can be thrilling to go to some of these places; my concern is the way they're operated, the use of federal tax dollars, the fake history.

What are the libraries supposed to be?

They're supposed to be archival repositories of official presidential records. That's the legislative purpose for presidential library funding, currently at $100 million per year: to preserve and make available the records of the presidency.

They're much more than that now. What happened?

Roosevelt, the first president to build a library for his papers, had the world's largest stamp collection and the world's largest collection of naval memorabilia. So he said, let's have a couple rooms where the public can come in and pay a nickel and see what the president does and what he collects, and that can help fund the operation of the library.

And then Truman said, let me take that a step further—maybe we can have a replica of the Oval Office and an explanation of what the presidency is. It was the Kennedy and Johnson libraries that began the monumental building idea.

But they're still housing the records and making them available, right?

There's a huge problem with access. The federal government estimates that, at the current pace, it will take 100 years for the national archives to fully open a given presidential library's records. No record is available under FOIA for five years. Initially they thought all the records could be arranged and processed in that time. It was a stunningly shortsighted view of how long it would take. There are records from the Truman library that are still being withheld. My favorite example: three years ago a researcher requested a single electronic record at the George W. Bush library and received a reply that said it's in the queue and we estimate that it will be fulfilled in 12 years.

You blame the presidential foundations for tweaking history. Do they run the museums?

The initial idea was that the president would create an organization to raise the money privately to build and equip the building and then donate it to the federal government. And up to now there's always been a single director for both library and museum, a federal employee. But the Obama Foundation recently did something unprecedented: it advertised for the position of director of the museum, to be employed by the Obama Foundation. It seems to indicate that they will not jointly operate, nor will they donate, the museum portion.

Why would they want to split the museum from the library?

In 1986, Congress passed an amendment to the Presidential Libraries Act that said these things are getting too big and too costly. You'll have to provide an endowment when you donate the library. President Obama is going to have to give 60 percent of the cost of his library to the national archives. However, if he doesn't deed the whole property he doesn't have to provide 60 percent of the whole property. So maybe that's an inspiration for the foundation to say we will operate the museum.

Let's say the Obama library and museum costs $100 million. He'd have to give $60 million as an endowment. But if the portion deeded to the government is only $20 million, then it's 60 percent of $20 million.

I'd also like to think that the critics, who have been beating this drum about skewed history in taxpayer-run institutions for years, have been heard. Maybe they're heeding that call and saying fine, we'll just do it on our own.

What advice would you give the Obama Foundation?

(1) Don't succumb to the impulse to write history the way you want it rather than the way it happened.

(2) If you're going to separate the archives from the museum, don't leave the archives to fend for themselves. Help fund whatever they need; help them digitize the records and get them out. Because seeing original documents, saying this is the proof of what happened, that's the antidote to fake news.  v

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