Many thanks to Professor Benjamin Hufbauer of the University of Louisville for this guest blog. Hufbauer’s book, Presidential Temples: How Memorials and Libraries Shape Public Memory (Kansas, 2006) is the key work on the subject of Presidential Libraries.
A Possible Turning Point for Presidential Libraries
When I was finishing my book on presidential libraries two years ago, I wondered what would happen when the George W. Bush Library was announced and fund-raising for it began. I imagined that there would be some newspaper articles about the Bush II Library, but overall I thought that there would be little questioning of the problematic aspects of this peculiarly American institution.
I was wrong. Even before the final announcement (expected any day now) that SMU will be home to the Bush II Library, there have been dozens of newspaper articles and editorials that have not just mentioned this newest library, but have discussed the history of presidential libraries and, more importantly, addressed the need for reform. And the Bush Library Blog, ably run by Professor Benjamin Johnson, has become a remarkable resource for those (including reporters) who are interested in this issue. I believe the Bush Library Blog has raised the level of discourse on presidential libraries, because reporters can learn a great deal about presidential libraries in a short period of time from this web site, and therefore can write articles with greater depth. In part as a result of the critical media attention the Bush II Library has already generated, The House of Representatives has passed two pieces of legislation, by veto-proof majorities, overturning Executive Order 13233 (which limits access to the records in presidential libraries), and requiring the disclosure of donors to presidential libraries. This is beyond my wildest hopes of two years ago. At times I’m a bit of a pessimist, but I believe we may have reached a turning point in the history of the presidential library.
What’s needed now, in my opinion, is constant vigilance and critical engagement. I found from researching and writing my book that the history of presidential libraries is punctuated by presidents attempting to use these institutions to further their own ends. In other words, most presidents want these institutions to be white-washed shrines to their egos, rather than institutions that truly serve the public and serve history. This is not a partisan issue. It cuts across party lines, and affects the libraries for Democratic as well as Republican presidents.
In fact the first federal presidential library, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, New York, faced some of the issues that we are still facing with the Bush II Library. FDR, political genius that he was, still faced controversy in selling the idea of a presidential library to the public, to Congress, and to historians. One critic said that FDR wanted “a Yankee Pyramid,” and in a sense that was true. An editorial comic from the time shows FDR dressed up as Santa Claus putting a giant present of a presidential library in his own stocking. But ultimately, FDR sold the presidential library-and got the crucial backing of historians-by saying that the complete records of his administration would be available to historians in a timely manner. In secret, however, FDR wanted something different. Roosevelt wanted to be able to select what records historians could see and which documents would be barred forever from their view. Realizing that he might not get to this vast task before his death, he appointed a committee of political allies to do this job for him.
But FDR’s secret plan to censor the Roosevelt Library’s archive was overturned by a federal judge after Roosevelt’s death. The judge correctly ruled that FDR’s public statements promising access to all records-consistent with the requirements of national security and the feelings of living persons-were more important than his contrary private wishes. And so the dream that FDR presented to the public, to Congress, and to historians came to pass. By the 1950s more than 80% of the records in the FDR Library were open to researchers, and today that figure is 99%. The thousands of books and articles that have been written using the archive of the Roosevelt Library, and other presidential libraries, have helped us learn from our history.
But what Roosevelt was unable achieve with his secret plan, President George W. Bush has so far been able to attain with his infamous Executive Order 13233. This order allows presidents, their representatives, and even descendants long after a president’s death to control the records in presidential libraries. Although so far only a small number of records have been blocked from release by this order, the potential for the abuse of power exists and will persist. 13233 is contrary to the letter and spirit of the laws that previously governed presidential libraries, which is why it is so important that Congress act to overturn it. If the order stays in place, the George W. Bush Library will be of limited value to historians.
There are other issues that are also of importance when it comes to presidential libraries. These include the lack of funding for archivists to process the records in presidential libraries (currently the Office of Presidential Libraries estimates it will take up to 100 years to process the records in recent presidential libraries, because of a lack of archivists), the issue of how the museums in presidential libraries usually present an extended campaign commercial in museum form rather than real history, and finally the issue of the partisan Bush Institute, which , in my opinion, should not be associated with SMU in any way because it does not fit with a university’s academic mission.
When it comes to presidential libraries, it is important not to give in to the worst impulses of presidents and their supporters, for then they may try to create a temple of political propaganda that does not serve the public. It is important to struggle with these issues and remain engaged so that presidential libraries can be created that serve their regions and the nation. And this is possible. I believe the best presidential library in the system at this time is the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri. The Truman Library has an excellent museum that presents a thought-provoking history of the 1940s and 1950s, it has an archive noted for its accessibility because of the talents of the wonderful archivists who work there, and it has an innovative educational program called The White House Decision Center where students get to play the roles of historical figures in a recreation of the West Wing. Many talents went into remaking the Truman Library over the last twenty years, but one of the most important was former director Larry Hackman. Hackman wanted to make a presidential library that made people think. Once, at a meeting on presidential libraries at Princeton University, Larry Hackman said to me, almost in a whisper, “I don’t like it when people say ‘Truman’s Library,’ or ‘Reagan’s Library.’ It is The Truman Library or The Reagan Library. These institutions are not owned by these individuals or their families.” Or at least they should not be.