The trouble with presidential libraries

Former president makes remarks at dedication of George W. Bush Presidential Center


Congratulations to President George W. Bush!

His new presidential library is a tribute to his leadership. But that does lead to a question.

As the fight gets underway to claim the Obama Presidential Library – the University of Hawaii versus the University of Chicago – is the original intent of presidential libraries as archives of an administration’s papers is being lost?

The new reality is that the libraries are a tourist hot spot for a president’s political fans. The original goal was to allow the federal government to keep control of presidential records and as a matter of public trust holding former presidents accountable for their actions.

The libraries are built entirely with private money. And an endowment of private money is also required to help with operational costs. But the bill for managing all of the libraries goes to taxpayers. It is part of the budget of the National Archives and Records Administration. And the libraries’ budgets are the responsibility of the NARA.

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In December of 2010 the Congressional Research Service reported that the public-private partnership behind presidential libraries opens the government’s checkbook to being used to glorify ex-presidents. The CRS said it is “unclear” which part of a presidential library and its exhibits are the work of private funders and which part has the imprimatur of the federal government.

As a frequent visitor to presidential libraries to do research for books I can tell you that these sites rarely highlight stories about questionable actions by any president.

And several critics have noted that when the former president or any of his family remains alive they are given tremendous power over controlling the content of the library even as taxpayers pay the bills.

Former presidents can bar documents and even information about controversial incidents from public access for up to 12 years after their presidency. And too many documents remain classified by government agencies, often under pressure from former presidents and their friends.

The result is that presidential libraries are now often “a huge, glitzy, glamorous museum of spin – a giant campaign commercial in museum form,” as Benjamin Hufbauer, the author of ‘Presidential Temples: How Memorial and Libraries Shape Public Memory,’ told the Los Angeles Times this week.

The Bush Library’s curators are sensitive to the growing problem with presidential libraries. They have made a point of letting the public make up their own minds as they offer a fairly straight presentation of the facts of controversial episodes from the decision to go to war in Iraq to the government’s role in Hurricane Katrina.

And then there is the smell of corruption.

President Clinton’s library in Arkansas was built with donations from several foreign governments and corporations, including the government of Saudi Arabia. Some of those donations arrived while he was still in office.

On his last day in the White House President Clinton issued a pardon for a billionaire commodities trader, Marc Rich. Rich’s former wife, Denise, donated $450,000 to the Clinton library. That aroused suspicion that it is possible to buy a presidential pardon.

Rep. John Duncan Jr. (R-Tenn.) was prompted by the Rich pardon to propose legislation requiring any donation of more than $200 to a presidential library be publicly reported. And Duncan’s bill has punch. 

It makes it a crime for “contributors or fundraising organizations to knowingly and willfully submit false information or omit material information.” Duncan was also concerned about donations from foreign leaders and the potential effect those donations could have on a president’s decisions at a time when the president is least accountable – the end of his or her term.

Rep. Duncan denies that he introduced the bill to embarrass President Clinton. The complete list of donors to the Clinton Library was made public voluntarily but only during Hillary Clinton’s confirmation hearings to become secretary of state.

The Duncan bill, a similar version of which was first introduced in 1999, as the Clinton library was being built, has been up for a vote in ’02, ’07, and ’09.

But it has not passed.

The Senate almost approved in 2008 but former Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) blocked it because he felt it targeted George W. Bush’s presidential library in Texas.

“I introduced and have supported this legislation under both Democratic and Republican Presidents,” Duncan wrote in a press release last month before the opening of the new Bush library.

The Bush library foundation has promised to release the names of all its donors – unless they requested anonymity.

But the time has come for Congress, the archives and the presidents to take a look at the growth and use of presidential libraries that began with Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s library in Hyde Park, N.Y.

Juan Williams currently serves as a co-host of FOX News Channel’s (FNC) The Five (weekdays 5-6PM/ET) and also appears as a political analyst on FOX News Sunday with Chris Wallace and Special Report with Bret Baier. Williams joined the network as a contributor in 1997.