Our Presidential Libraries

By Dallek, Robert | The Nation, March 26, 2001 | Go to article overview

Our Presidential Libraries


Dallek, Robert, The Nation


Allegations that President Clinton pardoned Marc Rich partly in return for donations to his presidential library have raised questions about the value of such institutions and the federal appropriations that support them. In raising funds for his library from friends and supporters, Clinton followed a tradition established by Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt and continued by all subsequent Presidents. Private contributors have funded the ten presidential libraries and museums, which with the exception of the Nixon Library were then given to the government. Nixon's library will also become a ward of the National Archives once his papers and tapes are processed and deposited there.

The Clinton flap has exposed all these presidential repositories to public fire. "Why do these white elephants exist at all?" Eric Gibson asked in the Wall Street Journal. Presidential libraries, Gibson complains, have lost touch with the "tasteful beginnings" evident at the FDR site. "Nowadays they look like the fruit of an unholy alliance between the Smithsonian and Graceland--repositories doubling as shrines to a personality cult." FDR's Hyde Park facility "plays up the Hundred Days and plays down the packing of the Supreme Court," Gibson says. "JFK's library celebrates the Cuban Missile Crisis while having strangely little to say about the Bay of Pigs invasion or the Diem assassination."

Gibson's complaint is not without merit. The museum tied to each of the libraries is a forum for celebrating the President's life and Administration. These museums do put their best foot forward, but a country needs people it can look up to. And each of the ten Presidents memorialized in their museums had some--and in FDR's case, considerable--virtues worth remembering.

Gibson believes we would be better off if we housed presidential papers at the National Archives. But if the tens of millions of papers and the thousands of hours of tapes and oral histories in the presidential libraries went into the archives, it would limit the availability of these records to biographers and historians and impoverish the public's understanding of twentieth-century US history and the institution of the presidency. The libraries do a superb job of organizing these vast collections and making them available in a timely fashion to anyone with a legitimate research interest.

Questions about whether Clinton exchanged donations to his library for pardons can serve at least one useful purpose. …

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