Historian of Presidential Libraries Reflects on SMU, Bush Debate

May 4, 2007

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.

Nixon Library Web Site Removes Coulter Column

March 14, 2007

Nixon Foundation deletes Coulter column
Glenn Greenwald
March 13, 2007

Apparently, numerous readers complained to the Nixon Foundation and, as a result, I received this e-mail yesterday, from Tim Naftali, Director of the Nixon Presidential Materials Staff:

Dear Mr. Greenwald: I read your blog posting on Salon.com of March 11, 2007, entitled “Our right-wing arbiters of masculinity”. Several readers, prompted by this article, have contacted me regarding the Ann Coulter column on http://www.nixonlibrary.org. Some have been concerned that tax dollars have gone to support that Web site and that the federal government endorses the content on that Web site.

I would like you and your readers to know that http://www.nixonlibrary.org is owned and operated by the private Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace. That private institution is distinct and separate from the federal Nixon Presidential Materials Staff, a part of the National Archives and Records Administration, which will, later this year, take over the management of the Nixon library and that Web site.

Officials at the private Nixon foundation tell us that they posted the Coulter article several weeks ago because it contained references to President Nixon and his Vietnam policy. I understand that the Coulter article and the link have now been removed.

Continued here.

When Archivists Deal with Power Players

March 4, 2007

An article from an historian and former National Archives Nixon tapes archivist.

When Archivists Deal with Power Players
Maarja Krusten
History News Network
March 5, 2007

President George W. Bush reportedly is leaning toward Southern Methodist University (SMU) as the site of his Presidential Library, which will be administered by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). A handful of people negotiate site selection for a Presidential Library. A history professor at SMU has posted on his blog articles reflecting various perspectives. But there are no opportunities during this process for faculty members and the President of the United States to discuss the different worlds in which they work.

Politicians often face mudslinging by opponents. They can easily lose sight of the value of objective analysis. Screening out sycophancy among one’s advisers also is a challenge in the halls of power. Not all who analyze history’s lessons are a White House’s enemies, but a President (Democratic or Republican) may come to view them as such.

How prepared is any President to leave the shelter provided by loyal aides and to hand over control of historical information to objective, nonpartisan federal archivists? My experiences show very different reactions by two Watergate principals.

Continued here.

Reforming the Presidential Library Donation Disclosure Process

February 28, 2007

From the web page of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform:

This hearing will examine the need for public disclosure of donations made to private foundations established to fund presidential libraries and related facilities. The committee will consider possible legislative proposals to require such disclosure.

Updated: A video of the hearing is also now available at the web page.

The following witnesses testified:

Mr. Waxman noted in his statement:

The George H.W. Bush library was reported to cost more than $80 million to build. The Clinton library and museum cost about $165 million to build. News reports have indicated that he fundraising goal for President Bush’s library is $500 million – half a billion dollars – before this institution is completed.

The vast scale of these secret fundraising efforts creates opportunities for abuse. Donors who do not need to be identified can give unlimited amounts of money to support these libraries while the President remains in office. According to some accounts, some mega-donors being courted to fund the Bush library are expected to contribute $10 to $20 million each. And they may make these contributions while there are nearly two years left in President Bush’s term.

Later this week, Rep. Duncan and I will be introducing legislation to reform this system. This legislation would require that presidential libraries disclose the identity of their donors to Congress and the National Archives during their period of most intense fundraising, which is hile the President is in office and in the several years after the end of his term. I expect the Committee to consider this legislation next week.

This legislation is one part of a larger effort by this Committee to restore honesty and accountability in the federal government. In fact, the Committee will soon be considering two additional open government bills: one to improve access to presidential records and one to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act.

As we will learn at today’s hearing and when we mark up the open government legislation, these bills are bipartisan initiatives with broad public support.

Just this morning, the Dallas Morning News reported that President Bush donated over $100,000 to his own library fund, and added:

Other donations that might have come in remain secret. There is no law requiring presidential libraries to disclose funding sources, though some gifts do come to light because the donors themselves – in this case, the Governor Bush Committee – are subject to state or federal disclosure laws.

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).

History of Harvard’s Institute for Politics (IOP)

February 14, 2007

My colleague and fellow History professor Alexis McCrossen researched the history of the Harvard IOP, and makes some important points below.  If SMU accepts the Bush Institute as proposed, it will be agreeing to a fundamentally different relationship than any other American university, to my knowledge, has with a think-tank.  Other outfits, like Harvard’s IOP and Stanford’s Hoover Center, report to the university governance structure and have been subjected to administration and faculty pressure to make themselves more academic and representative of more than a narrow range of political perspectives.  Yet neither SMU’s administration nor its faculty senate (at least as yet) has shown any willingness to press the issue.  Here is McCrossen’s introduction:

First, Harvard President Nathan Pusey insisted on Harvard oversight ofthe Institute, which at first the Kennedy people did not wish for.  Second, Pusey insisted that the Institute be bi-partisan in activities and purpose. Third, after a short time of operation the Institute was accused of being a finishing school for Kennedy Democrats, an accusation that tarnished its and Harvard’s reputation.

In reading the history of the IOP, I am struck by the similarities between the proposal for the Bush Institute and the initial plans for the memorial to President Kennedy. It is somewhat curious that in all the debate swirling on and off SMU’s campus, no one has mentioned the IOP. I wonder why.

Although the page is lengthy, I urge you to read it.

Continued here.

Don’t get too worried about a neocon invasion at SMU

January 24, 2007

Don’t get too worried about a neocon invasion at SMU
Lee Cullum
Dallas Morning News
January 24, 2007

To see how the think tank President Bush has in mind to accompany his library might work, it’s useful to look at the model he wants to follow – the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

As a media fellow there three times, most recently last spring, I can report that this is a respectable organization where the views you hear primarily are those of the Reagan wing of the Republican Party.

Continued here.