Presidents and Their Legacy

[Below follows another review originally written as a kind of op-ed about a new book on presidential libraries but also not published. I had provided modest assistance and encouragement to the author after he had read my essay on these institutions, “America’s Pyramids: Presidents and their libraries,” Government Information Quarterly 19 (2002): 45-75. I am posting this review here because this is an important and thoughtful book, published by someone outside of the archival profession. The profession has been far too non-critical in their assessment of presidential libraries.]

Presidential libraries, thirteen of them, are scattered across the country in eleven states. Devotees of travel guides or “things to do” newspaper columns will often find descriptions of them, focusing on their museums with interactive exhibits and First Lady gowns. The public associates them with these exhibits and related educational programs. The research community, comprised of academics and journalists, know them by their original mission, an archives intended to document a particular presidential administration. For the most recently founded of them (from the first Bush through the emerging plans for Obama’s), however, there is modest evidence of an archival focus. There is an important story to be learned about with their transformation, one with implications for our sense of an open democratic and accountable government.

Anthony Clark, in his recent book The Last Campaign: How Presidents Rewrite History, Run for Posterity and Enshrine Their Legacies (published by the author and available from Amazon), has something important to say about the preservation of and access to Presidential records. Setting out to write a history of Presidential Libraries, Clark ran into efforts by National Archives staff to block access to his use of records about the libraries, ultimately discovering a system that is more about building monuments to the holders of this office and current political activities than about understanding the Presidents and their legacy by preserving archives. Seeing that these libraries (that is, museums) open four years after a President leaves office while their records now may take a hundred years or more to be opened, Clark questions just what is the purpose of these institutions. And Clark offers some startling documentary evidence about the failures of the National Archives and Presidential Libraries it administers. Every citizen and archivist needs to hear what he has to say (and to read his book) and every archivist and researcher needs to work to change what Clark has found.

Within the National Archives, there is an Office of Presidential Libraries, established in 1964 as the central administration of the libraries. Although these institutions are touted as champions of making the Oval Office and its inhabitants understandable to the American public by making their records accessible, Clark, a former speechwriter and legislative director in the U.S. House of Representatives, had to fight to get access to any of this office’s records as well as the records in the various individual libraries. If one wants to understand the recent, ongoing controversy about Hilary Clinton’s State Department e-mail, this book about the power of the holders of high offices will help.

 

Clark uncovers three problems with presidential libraries: the weak Presidential Records Act of 1978, full of loopholes and lack of accountability; the biased history presented in their museums; and the power of the private, politicized foundations housed in and running the libraries. Clark had started out to do a history of these interesting institutions, but his discovery of documents about President Nixon’s audacious efforts to grab land for his library from protected federally owned California coastline and the National Archives’ efforts to block examination of the Presidential Library system records changed his plans. Readers who like a good story and who are interested in an accountable government will enjoy reading (while, of course, being disturbed) The Last Campaign.

 

The focus of these institutions on the museums is quite different than their intended aim of preserving and making accessible the records of presidential administrations. In fact, the National Archives website touts their “stimulating education programs especially for schoolchildren, public programs about the various presidencies, and their role in the local communities (“Celebrating America,” “storytellers and actors portraying our Presidents,” and holiday seasons “with elaborate decorations”). With the increasingly long delays in opening presidential records, a problem Clark attributes to the use of most of the funding for political and museum purposes, the libraries’ mission has drifted far afield from their original intent.

 

Such problems make the library system more problematic. First, there is the financial cost borne by the public: “The total cost to the taxpayers for all thirteen presidential libraries is approaching a billion dollars a decade — and is growing” (p. 51). Second, there is the matter of poor leadership by the National Archives. Clark singles out one particularly weak Archivist of the United States. Don Wilson, who “left the National Archives weaker as an agency, its reputation damaged and its credibility as a nonpartisan arbiter of federal and presidential records laws in serious doubt. And he ushered in a new era, one of strong politicization, deference to presidents and their foundations, and acceptance of skewed history in presidential library museums” (p. 95). More generally, Clark explains his concern with the National Archives, a federal agency with “decades of inaction and acquiescence to the wishes of presidents and former presidents and presidential families has created a culture of risk-averse, fawning, finger-in-the-air administrators who simply will not lead.” And, third, Clark criticizes “most of the professional organizations that work closely with the National Archives” which won’t criticize it, “for fear of rocking the bot, and risking NARA’s ire and the loss of their own access and clout with the agency.” (p. 186)

 

I believe Clark’s description and analysis to be quite accurate, based on my four decades of work as an archivist and a few articles I have written about these institutions and their parent federal agency. And he offers a variety of ways to fix the problems he sees, although it is hard to see just what can be done to turn the Presidential Library around. Some years ago, when I was contacted by the White House personnel office about recommendations for the position of Archivist of the United States, when asked at the end of the discussion about whether I wished to convey anything else to President Obama, I stated, “Do not establish an Obama Library.” Of course, I was naïve about this President’s interests in open government. Perhaps, if this President or the next would read Mr. Clark’s book, we might stand a better chance of returning to the original mission of these institutions. But I do remain skeptical. And this makes me sad, both as a professional in the important business of archives and as an American citizen at a time when we need a strong National Archives more than ever.

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