News Hour Examines Presidential Libraries

February 19, 2007

Interesting piece Monday night on PBS’ News Hour examining Presidential libraries, featuring a brief introductory piece on libraries in general, with passing mention that there has been some controversy at SMU. Presidential scholar Michael Beschloss was joined by the director of the Clinton Library and a former director of several libraries. (I’ll post a link once PBS has the program up on its website). [Transcript now posted here].

The discussion struck me as positive to the point of banality– yes, how wonderful that we have presidential libraries. The documents would still be accessible to the public without the library system, as part of the National Archives and Records Administration’s general collections. Why no discussion of the odd mingling of the private political and family interest of the President and his circles with the national interest in having access to documents generated while doing the people’s business? No mention was made of Executive Order 13233, which has attracted the attention of the New York Times, the Dallas Morning News, library scholar Benjamin Hufbauer, and the historians at SMU, among others.

Brief mention was made of the issue of making museums into “shrines,” and all agreed that it was a mistake to present skewed exhibits. But nobody pointed out that the Nixon library homepage still features a lovely piece by Ann Coulter called “The Democratic Party: A Vast Sleeper Cell,” in which she dismisses Watergate as an invention of America-hating Democrats emboldened by Communist gains in southeast Asia and concludes that “The passing of Gerald Ford should remind Americans that Democrats are always lying in wait, ready to force a humiliating defeat on America.” Coulter is entitled to stew in her own juices, but why should a Presidential museum help her to spew her bile upon the world? Is there any sense in which this is serious scholarship or a thoughtul contribution to a discussion of public issues? (In fairness, the Clinton museum also skews history, presenting the Lewinsky scandal as a mere example of a right-wing conspiracy. But even those highly optimistic about the presidential library system acknowledge that they tend to be skewed in their first few years).