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Presidential libraries are a peculiarly American phenomenon. Churchill and de Gaulle chose to be buried simply in a country churchyard, but American Presidents want a library-museum which will record their history. This can create problems and backfire. The nearest parallel is the Pinochet Foundation in Santiago de Chile, which was supposed to preserve the dictator's glorious legacy but has become embroiled in the dispute over his extradition from England.
Despite their claims to be impartial repositories of documents, presidential libraries are meant to polish the memory of the president. The Kennedy Library at Harvard is silent on the personal shortcomings of President Kennedy, and when Robert Caro used the Johnson Library to show among other things that he stole his congressional victory and lied about his kind mentor Sam Rayburn to advance himself, Johnson Library officials were unhappy.
I remember the building of Stanford's Hoover Tower in 1941, which was hailed as a monument to that once highly esteemed president. However, the depression had blackened his memory, and he was incorrectly accused of having given the order to fire on the bonus marchers in Washington. His Stanford critics ridiculed the tower as Hoover's last erection. I knew him as an embittered old man; he shook the dust of Stanford from his heels and retreated to his home town of West Branch, Iowa, where he established a new presidential library.
Then came the Reagan Library, which Hoover Director Glenn Campbell wanted to establish at Stanford. Rightly or wrongly, Reagan was a very popular president, but the Stanford community despised him. and such was the opposition that Campbell withdrew his proposal, and the Reagan Library was established in Southern California. The Nixon Library likewise was enveloped in disputes.
The impeachment of President Clinton has aroused interest in presidential libraries, notably, because of his impeachment trial, in that of President Andrew Johnson in Tennessee, hitherto virtually unknown. Now it is attracting tourists, and TV has shown soldiers following the annual ritual of saluting his tomb on the anniversary of his birthday.
There were great plans for the Clinton Presidential Library and Museum in Little Rock, Arkansas. After the scandal broke, people wondered what would be displayed: the stained dress, the cigar, the hairpin? Would the plan be abandoned? Not at all. The chairman of the planning commission has expressed delight at the publicity, which will attract visitors to the complex. As the young man said :"I don't care what people say about me, so long as they talk about me." Such publicity is impossible to buy.
Ronald Hilton - 01/23/99
More on Presidential Libraries
Hoover Archivist Elena Danielson writes:
"There is an important distinction between a presidential library, staffed by professional archivists and governed by federal legislation that ensures equal access to documents, and the presidential foundations, which are privately financed and are free to promote the best side of the president and his party."
My comment: True, but the experience of Robert Caro at the Johnson Library testifies to the fact that, although they have free access to documents, debunkers are not warmly welcomed in presidential libraries.
Ronald Hilton - 01/24/99