Obama's Narcissism Gets Its Monument

By Terzian, Philip | Examiner (Washington, D.C.), The, March 22, 2019 | Go to article overview

Obama's Narcissism Gets Its Monument


Terzian, Philip, Examiner (Washington, D.C.), The


Presidential libraries are many things.

They’re repositories of the official papers and, in many cases, the personal archives and artifacts of our nation’s chief executives, as well as those of their families, friends, and colleagues in public service. And as the name would suggest, they are also home to vast collections of books, articles, dissertations, monographs, and journals about their subject or the presidency in general. They’re a scholar’s dream for historians, researchers, and students alike. If you’re seeking to understand, say, Harry S. Truman’s diplomacy or Ronald Reagan’s life before politics, a journey to Independence, Mo., or Simi Valley, Calif., is probably obligatory.

In recent decades, they’ve expanded their purview. Since the advent of Jimmy Carter’s eponymous center in Atlanta, they double as the site of think tanks, foundations, or institutes intended to continue the public work of retired or deceased presidents. Some are located at birthplaces or boyhood homes, which are of interest in themselves, or on college campuses, where their presence may evoke mixed sentiments. They are conference centers, ceremonial and mortuary sites, and, above all, tourist destinations featuring well-stocked museums, rotating exhibitions, troops of visiting schoolchildren, and capacious gift shops.

At the John F. Kennedy library alongside Boston Harbor, you can see a replica of his Oval Office, complete with rocking chair, and at the Reagan library in sunny Southern California, there’s a two-story fragment of the Berlin Wall on an outside terrace.

By contrast, at the forthcoming Barack Obama Presidential Center in Chicago, for which ground will be broken later this year, things will be quite different. To begin with, it is the Obama “center” and not the Obama “library” because it is not, in fact, a library at all: There will be no books, no presidential papers or documents, nor printed matter of any kind related to the Obama presidency, except for, presumably, what’s on sale at the gift shop.

There will be no cables, no memoranda or manuscripts, no official records of the presidency it’s designed to celebrate. The Barack Obama Presidential Center will not be a historical archive, scholarly resource, or even museum, so much as a vast, 33-acre monument to Obama, spread over multiple structures and a manicured landscape.

Most startling of all, the unclassified papers of the Obama administration, the ostensible purpose of any presidential library, will repose not in Chicago but in a distant federal warehouse, digitized for online access but otherwise inconvenient and inaccessible. This particular feature has not gone down so well among historians, who are feeling the sting of unrequited affection. Of course, the admiration of the chattering classes for Obama was never quite so high as the 44th president’s regard for himself, but the grandiosity and essential philistinism of the center, not to mention its offhand insult to the life of the mind, does remind us yet again that our erstwhile president’s status as intellectual in chief was wishful thinking at best.

“Everybody is still calling it a presidential library,” complained the former director of the Franklin D. Roosevelt library to the New York Times, “but it's not.” Nor, for that matter, will it be a federal installation like its precursors. The center will not be owned and administered by the National Archives or National Park Service but instead by the Obama Foundation, a lavishly funded, closely held entity devoted not to history or scholarly inquiry but rather the veneration of Barack Obama.

In that sense, the center succeeds in its purpose. Visitors will marvel at its cathedral-style design and layout and two-story “event space” with its nearby winter garden. The hub of the campus will be a misshapen, 235-foot-high cube-tower containing not only a “working center for citizenship,” as yet undefined, but also spacious meeting facilities, grandiose halls, and certain luxury features, including a state-of-the-art recording studio and a fully equipped athletic center, that might not have occurred to previous presidents. …

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