By Dahleen Glanton, Chicago Tribune
CHICAGO — In the nearly 60 years since the federal government became the official caretaker of former U.S. presidents’ historical documents, presidential libraries have engaged in a delicate dance to keep the private foundations that build them and the taxpayers who keep them running from stepping on each other’s toes.
While presidential libraries are designed and built almost entirely with private donations, they are then handed over to the National Archives and Records Administration to oversee.
With the site selection process underway for President Barack Obama’s library and museum, public attention has returned to the amount of federal money it takes to operate and maintain these facilities.
Last year, it cost taxpayers nearly $68 million — the equivalent of about 21 cents per U.S. resident.
That’s a drop in the bucket in the federal government’s $3.5 trillion budget. But the notion that taxpayers are footing the bill to run 13 presidential libraries, with another on the way, doesn’t sit well with everyone — including those who view them as “museums of spin” to shape public opinion.
While the major responsibility of the National Archives is to preserve and make accessible the presidents’ papers, records, and other historical materials, the libraries also are considered to be repositories of history for the public. But it isn’t always clear where the government’s work begins and where that of the foundation — the nonprofit group whose mission is to ensure that the president’s vision for his library is carried out — ends.
The relationship varies from library to library. In most cases, the foundation continues to occupy offices and other space in the library even after the building is deeded to the National Archives. While the federal government covers most staffing, maintenance, and operational costs, foundations often pay for programs and exhibits. The government pays for building repairs, but major exhibit renovations generally are handled by foundations.
It is a complex relationship that makes some taxpayers uncomfortable.
The George W. Bush Foundation, which operates the George W. Bush Institute, occupies more than half of the 208,000-square-foot Bush Presidential Center on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas. The foundation also operates the gift shop, cafeteria, and auditorium. In addition to the museum and library archives, the Clinton Presidential Center in Arkansas also houses the Clinton Foundation and the Clinton School of Public Service, an extension of the University of Arkansas.
“The public is sometimes confused by this private-public partnership,” said Benjamin Hufbauer, a presidential library scholar and associate professor at the University of Louisville. “They are basically museums of spin established by the presidents … but they want the federal government to run them and give them legitimacy.”
But Susan Donius, director of the National Archives’ Office of Presidential Libraries in Washington, said presidential libraries are important to democracy.
“Ultimately, by having presidential libraries located around the country, we give American people firsthand access to democracy,” Donius said in an interview with the Chicago Tribune earlier this year. “We have a curatorial staff that oversees the exhibits, but the story is the president’s to tell. It emphasizes the points he wants to make about his four or eight years in office.”
The problem, according to Hufbauer and other library experts, is that the libraries and museums rarely fully acknowledge mistakes or problems that occurred in the president’s administration. And if they do, they have a way of making the missteps seem like they weren’t so bad.
At former President George W. Bush’s library dedication last year, former President Bill Clinton joked that the new building is the “latest, grandest example of the eternal struggle of former presidents to rewrite history.”
Every president who has a library, from Herbert Hoover to, soon, Obama, has faced controversies while in the White House.
While the archival function is crucial to the libraries, the National Archives has been so short-staffed that a large backlog of presidential items waits to be archived. According to a 2010 report by the Congressional Research Service, it would take the National Archives 100 years to catch up. Officials said that backlog has been reduced significantly but that they have not kept pace with the influx of new documents.
“Meanwhile, you’ve got a museum of spin telling lies about the president, and it’ll take 100 years for the archives to reveal the truth,” said Hufbauer, author of the book “Presidential Temples: How Memorials and Libraries Shape Public Memory.”
“If they want to do a museum showing how wonderful they were, they should do that on their own dime. Now, it’s kind of like welfare for presidents,” he said.
AFP Photo/Saul Loeb
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