The Obama Presidential Library, Part One

Discussion about the location of the Obama Presidential Library and Museum has been surfacing in a handful of media sources (and fan sites). Most recently, the Chicago Sun-Times published an article with pre-emptive criticism of an effort to bring the Obama library to the University of Chicago.

“I want to raise the alarm because I think a presidential museum will inevitably become our university’s highest-profile institution on a national basis,” Political Science Professor Charles Lipson said. “It will not be a disinterested, scholarly institution. It will be advancing a political agenda, funded by President Obama’s political allies, including foreign donors who cannot give money to his presidential campaigns.”

The Reagan Library in California attracts conservative speakers and serves as a launching pad for Republican ideas, Lipson said.

We can rather easily dismiss this as nonsense. Not that it is gibberish, but that it is overstating a criticism of presidential libraries in fundamentally meaningless ways. While initial capital funds for presidential libraries are raised privately, and largely from political allies and sympathetic donors, this is not inherently a problem. After the construction of a building, the National Archives and Records Administration populates the staff with non-political, thoroughly professional staff, including academic and public historians, and assumes almost all operational costs. Often there is a private foundation that provides some other funds for programs or researchers, as well. This kind of public-private partnership results in a better, more robust physical plant than the federal government would invest in, so up-front private fundraising makes sense and is a fairly responsible engagement with private interests.* As for programs and scholars, I question Lipson’s familiarity with the work of the presidential museums and libraries. A quick peek at the Gerald Ford Museum programs in 2012, for example, include a speaker on Bob Hope, a speaker on Michigan Football, a speaker on energy issues in the Ford administration, a speaker on the assassination of James Garfield, and three journalists on presidents, the legacy of Vietnam, and the growth of the national security state. The Lyndon Johnson Library and Museum has a similarly mixed though higher profile list: Christopher Buckley, Laura Bush, Stephen Breyer, Sissy Spacek, Bill Moyers, and Mikhail Gorbachev, among others. Are Christopher Buckley and Laura Bush’s political bona fides really in question?

Opposition to an Obama Presidential Library and Museum on political grounds is not a serious criticism. If there is one legitimate criticism that can be made of presidential libraries, it is against the Reagan Museum and Library, which did not employ adequate professional staff and procedures and suffered the theft of thousands (possibly even tens of thousands) of artifacts, according to an audit by the Office of the Inspector General.

The two competitor locales would seem to be the other places with strong associations with Obama, Hawai’i (likely the University of Hawai’i) where the president was born, and Cambridge/Harvard, where he went to law school. Harvard and Boston seem less likely, as there is already the Kennedy museum and library, and Obama will never have the strength of association with Harvard that Kennedy did. Indeed, Chicago is Obama’s Boston — the place he lived and represented as an adult, the city he chose to establish his identity and power base.

*I offer the caveat that in many cases the starchitect designs often leave something to be desired in terms of engagement with surroundings.

See Part 2 on the Obama Presidential Library and Museum.