Monday, February 28, 2011

Library Lucre

Mario Trujillo covers today's presidential libraries hearing on Capitol Hill. The National Archives' $72.6 million budget for its 13 libraries was indeed at issue, hence the game if dubious assertion in the prepared remarks of Reagan library director Duke Blackwood that scholars working at libraries reach millions of taxpayers through their books, articles, and blog posts and even more than that (tens of millions? gazillions?) once they go on TV. Whether or not that's true, critics of the library system have always argued that scholars could provide the same benefit to the American people if they did their research in a centralized repository of presidential records.

There's no denying that the libraries are remarkable institutions. Museum visitors and researchers can gain a deeper appreciation of a president by doing their work in his birthplace or home town. As I saw during 19 years as director of the Nixon library in Yorba Linda (shown here from the air), a community can take great pride in playing host to a favorite son's and someday daughter's library.

But such intangible benefits aside, in an age of federal austerity can we afford a burgeoning archipelago of presidential monuments? It probably depends on technology and how much leverage the National Archives is prepared to withstand from rich donors.

Because of Congress's post-Watergate reforms, presidential records have automatically become the property of the U.S., which has to store them someplace. Since it was launched by FDR, the library system has been a distinctive model of public-private partnership in which presidents' rich friends have provided them and the public with expensive, high-tech warehouses.

It'll be interesting to see whether President Obama chooses Honolulu or Chicago for his library. You can bet that both cities are vying for the privilege. Either way, it might end up being smaller than his predecessors'. If his office is anything like yours and mine, he's using a lot less paper than he would have ten years ago, resulting in fewer acid-free Hollinger boxes stuffed with memos and letters.

Let's look at the raw numbers. The Nixon library says it has 46 million pages of records from a five and a half-year presidency in which IBM Selectric typewriters were state of the art. The Reagan library has 50 million pages covering its still-pre-high tech eight years. One-term President Bush has 40 million pages. But then eight-year President Clinton, at 77 million pages, couldn't quite double 41's total. The George W. Bush library, now under construction in Texas, says it has "millions." Maybe they're still counting them.

Experts on electronic records can say for sure, but I'd think that the volume of paper will decline as more and more governmental business is transacted digitally. It's true that the libraries also house gifts, photographs, and myriad other items. For some things, the White House will always use paper. If we declare war or adopt a $2 trillion budget, I want to see more than a text message or an exchange of e-mails. But now that the textual output of an administration can be housed on a few MacBooks, Congress has to be wondering whether we really need a new $250 million warehouse (the projected cost of Bush 43's library) every four to eight years, especially when taxpayers foot the bill for running them.

To help with expenses, as Trujillo's article also notes, the National Archives has an eye on the tens of millions of dollars private presidential foundations hold in trust. It would already have some of those funds in hand if the history of the Nixon library were different.

In 1996, as Nixon's legal co-executor I worked with the feds on a $26 million settlement of a lawsuit he'd brought to be compensated for the government's taking of his records after Watergate in 1974. We were days away from inviting his daughters to Washington for a signing ceremony when the settlement was blocked by members of the Nixon family. They thought we could get more money by trying the case in federal court.

In April 1997, someone leaked the news of the $26 million to the Washington Post. "The settlement is dead," Tricia Cox told me confidently. She was right. But the Nixon family's legal eagles were wrong. The Nixon foundation and estate ended up with millions less. The National Archives got a worse deal, too, since we'd promised to put a portion of the $26 million in an endowment to help operate the library and reduce the bill for taxpayers.

As pressure grows on the federal budget, the National Archives will need even more private money to help it carry out its public trust as stewards of our history. Watergate's deathless admonition was "follow the money." When a president's friends pay for the museum in his library, how much influence do they and the president or his family have over content? Quite a bit, judging by most new libraries' hagiographic museums.

Politics and money can also be a factor when older museums, aiming for more balance and objectivity, decide to update exhibits about controversial questions. Thirty-eight years after Nixon's resignation, Nixon library director Tim Naftali, trying to complete an assignment he received from NARA official Sharon Fawcett (shown above left with Nixon's last chief of staff, Kathy O'Connor), encountered resistance from Nixon's former White House aides -- some of whom have links to the scandal, such as Dwight Chapin (shown here) -- when he tried to install a new Watergate exhibit.

It's now finally under construction. Was the delay a result of behind-the-scenes political pressure, the National Archives' increasingly desperate need for foundation cash, or some combination of both?

Whatever the answer, it may be a moot question before long. The only reasons president-friendly museums exist is that the National Archives finds it profitable to put up with them in exchange for the storage space. If a president and our national librarians ever decide to splurge on those MacBooks and learn to make do with a more modest warehouse in the Washington area for the rest of the collection, no one will have to deal with the toxic politics of curating scandals, because there won't be any more presidential museums. If that happens in the wake of the Nixon library wars, helping kill off the library system could be yet another of Richard Nixon's historic firsts.


MK said...

Interesting, isn't it? The real challenge for the right is the reprehensible way that Limbaugh and Beck and Palin have treated Obama. As a result, he cannot be the first U.S. president not to have a presidential library. IF there is change, it will have to post-date Obama, our honor demands it. As you know, when the PRA was passed, one stipulation was that it not apply to the incumbent president (Carter.) It would be dishonorable and a rejection of everything the U.S. stands for, as well as unmanly (in my view) for anyone to call for Obama to be the first not to have a library. As usual, the extremists outside government have done their side no service.

Fr. John said...

Thanks, MK. I don't think it happens until a president says, "I don't want a library."

MK said...

Yep, that's right!

J.C. Marrero said...

I agree that the traditional presidential museum and library concept will have to change or go the way of the dodo. How many of today's presidential museums will hold the attention of audiences fifty years hence?

Philanthropic efforts such as the Clinton Initiative have a much better chance of survival, thus preserving that president's memory in a most practical and positive light. Perhaps the Nixon library should establsih a charitable concern logically connected to RN's presidency (cancer research and treatment, for instance) and deemphasize the historical interpretation efforts.

Philip Larkin's poem about the futility of funeral monuments in view of the transience of memory, concludes wisely that "what will survive of us is love."

Fr. John said...

Thanks, Juan. Our initiative along those lines was the Nixon Center, which we launched in 1994 with Nixon's full support -- a foreign policy center in Washington dedicated to promoting his principles of enlightened national interest:

37 himself agreed with you about museums and libraries. The Center was the only aspect of the Nixon foundation's work in which he seemed more than politely interested.