At the recent dedication of the $500 million George W. Bush Presidential Center at Southern Methodist University, President Clinton called it "the latest, grandest example of the eternal struggle of former presidents to rewrite history." In 2004, the Clinton Center and Foundation stunned with its more than $200 million price tag, and less than a decade later Bush has doubled that when the endowment for the Bush Institute is counted. When the Barack Obama center opens around 2020, perhaps on the campus of the University of Chicago, could it be the first billion-dollar presidential center? Possibly. A total of $1.4 billion was raised for Obama’s two successful presidential campaigns, and so for a center dedicated to his final campaign for a better place in history it’s at least likely that he’ll surpass previous records.
Although the final decision on the location of the Obama center is probably a couple of years away, professors and administrators at the University of Chicago (where he once taught) and the University of Hawaii (where his mother studied and his sister taught) are thinking about what it might mean if it lands on their campus. Chicago State University also wants to be considered. For universities, presidential centers present both opportunities and significant costs and challenges. Academics should consider carefully before getting into a bidding war over a presidential library, and weigh how much these centers promote spin in addition to scholarship.
Prime campus real estate is sometimes sacrificed for these presidential temples, which, although they house valuable historical records impartially managed by the National Archives, also have museums that high school students who have passed the Advanced Placement U.S. History test would likely find biased, as well as foundations or institutes that have agendas that the host university does not control.
Clinton was right in saying that these centers are attempts by former presidents to write their own history and polish their reputations. And to a significant degree they work. President Carter’s reputation was tarnished when he left office in 1981, but as The New York Times put it in a nearly prescient headline in 1986: "Reshaped Carter Image Tied to Library Opening" — and today, Carter is one of the more respected former presidents.
But Clinton exaggerated when he said that the struggle by former presidents to remake their images stretches back to the beginning of American history. Until the 20th century, former presidents rarely even wrote memoirs, and the first president to have a presidential library run by the federal government was Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Roosevelt Library, which opened on his estate at Hyde Park, New York, in 1941, was modest compared with succeeding presidential libraries. Its initial cost was about $7 million in today’s dollars, but critics still accused FDR of building a "Yankee pyramid." There was more than a grain of truth in the charge. When FDR first saw Egypt’s pyramids, he said, "man’s desire to be remembered is colossal." Although what Roosevelt said may not be true for everyone, it certainly was true for FDR and his successors.
Most succeeding presidential libraries dwarf FDR’s: The Harry S. Truman Library in Independence, Missouri, evokes Queen Hatshepsut’s Temple in Egypt, as well as being the first to feature a full-scale Oval Office replica (something copied by most of the others), and the Dwight D. Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kansas, is a complex of buildings with a park that takes up an entire city block.
The first president to affiliate his library with a university was President Kennedy. JFK envisioned his library on the grounds of his alma mater, Harvard University. After Kennedy’s death some at Harvard decided they didn’t like the idea of common tourists on their campus (99 percent of the visitors to presidential libraries are tourists, and only 1 percent are researchers), and architecture critic Ada Louis Huxtable humorously lampooned their fear of "Goths overwhelming the intelligentsia." Harvard did establish the Kennedy School of Government, but the Kennedy Library itself was located on a campus of the University of Massachusetts, on a spectacular site overlooking Boston harbor.
The Kennedy Library was also the first to have a "starchitect," when Jackie Kennedy chose I.M. Pei — who later designed the East Building of the National Gallery of Art, as well as the expansion of the Louvre — to design her husband’s memorial. Originally, the Kennedy Library was going to be a large pyramid with the top cut off — representing JFK’s tragically truncated achievement — but eventually that plan was scrapped, and Pei reimagined that design as the glass pyramid at the Louvre. Pei’s final design for The Kennedy Library and Museum was a futuristic glass, steel, and concrete edifice that still looks like it could be used in a Star Trek movie.
President Lyndon Johnson, with Lady Bird Johnson’s help, also hired a star architect for his monument to himself. Gordon Bunshaft of the famous Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill firm had designed such modernist icons as Yale University’s beautiful Beinecke Library with its translucent marble walls. Bunschaft’s design for the Johnson Library on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin has, as Ada Louis Huxtable wrote, "a Pharaonic air of permanence" that "puts Mr. Johnson in the same class as some Popes and Kings who were equally receptive clients for architects with equally large ideas." The Johnson Library looks like a cross between an Egyptian pylon temple and a space-age bureaucracy.
We could talk about award-winning architect James Polshek’s design for the Clinton Center, or the renowned Robert A. M. Stern’s imposing design for the Bush Center at SMU, but you get the idea. All presidents since FDR have an edifice complex. Becoming a patron of a huge architectural project dedicated to yourself is one of the perks of being an Imperial Ex-President. Another perk is becoming a museum curator. Initially, the exhibits in presidential libraries are campaign commercials in museum form, designed with a lot of help from the former president. Eventually these exhibits become more balanced and complete, but it’s usually 30-50 years after a president leaves office before the National Archives installs decent exhibits. The former president and many of his supporters need to die before their power to spin subsides.
As Wayne Slater of The Dallas Morning News writes, the new Bush museum is "a vivid justification for why certain decisions were made," rather than a balanced examination of the real options involved and the costs of presidential choices — such as the decision to invade Iraq. Bush avoids presidential mistakes in his museum, which means, as columnist Maureen Dowd of The New York Times writes, "You could fill an entire other library with what’s not in W’s." Bush is just the latest in a long line of presidents to create self-serving exhibits seen by millions. President Obama will likely follow this tradition.
Supporters of presidential libraries hail their archives with their raw materials of history open to scholars, journalists, and even school kids. But these records would be available anyway because by law they are owned by the American people and must be impartially administered and released by the National Archives. If a president didn’t have a presidential library, the records would be housed in an equally accessible facility (probably in Washington), it just wouldn’t be so architecturally grandiose.
It was Jimmy Carter who first morphed the presidential library into a presidential center. The Carter Center, which is next to but administratively separate from the Carter Library and Museum in Atlanta, has been so effective at living up to its mantra of "Waging Peace. Fighting Disease. Building Hope" that President Carter won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002. But Carter has also generated considerable controversy over the years because of his views on Israel. If the Carter Center had been located on the campus of nearby Emory University (with which it is loosely affiliated) that institution’s reputation might have been affected, but since the Carter Center is geographically separate from Emory the university was largely shielded.
There is not as much shielding for SMU from former President Bush and his views on such issues as enhanced interrogation techniques. The Bush Institute was inspired in part by the Hoover Institution on the campus of Stanford University, which is considered one of the nation’s leading conservative think tanks. The Hoover Institution has long offered a platform for high-profile Republicans such as George Schultz, Condoleezza Rice, and Donald Rumsfeld.
The Hoover Institution is to a large degree administratively separate from Stanford, and so although it effectively leverages the prestige of its host university to expand its influence, Stanford does not have a corresponding control over it. It’s possible that President Obama will seek a similar arrangement with a host university for a future Obama Center, or whatever he might choose to call it.
And the bottom line here is the bottom line: Although the price tag for the actual building of the Bush Library, Museum, and Institute was a cool quarter of a billion dollars, an equal amount was raised to endow the Bush Institute. And Bush and his supporters will continue their aggressive fund-raising for the foreseeable future, making the ultimate price tag and influence of the Bush Center perhaps in the billion-dollar range sometime in the next decade or two.
When President Johnson helped found the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, he gleefully anticipated breaking what he called "this goddamned Harvard" hold on top government positions. But like the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, the Johnson School is run by its university, not by a self-perpetuating board largely independent of the university that seeks, in part, to enhance the reputation of the president whose name is on the building. In other words, as presidential centers have evolved and grown they have become a better and better deal for former presidents, but it’s less certain that they are a good deal for the universities that might host them.
What would make a presidential center a better deal for a university and the public? It would be useful for the 99 percent who will visit the future Obama museum to encourage the involvement of some history professors at the host university to help create exhibits with rigorous content. This content should be of a quality that would actually help future high school students pass the relevant portion of a future AP U.S. history test, rather than just being a museum of spin.
For a future Obama foundation or institute, it would be worthwhile for the university to have a significant number of faculty members from a variety of departments on the governing board. The university should have more than token input into a foundation that will be a big player on campus for many decades, perhaps even centuries. For, as some have noted, these presidential centers have become the American equivalent of the temples and tombs of the pharaohs. If professors, students, and the general public are to be more than bystanders or even would-be political worshippers, the host university needs to negotiate for the best interests of not just the university but the American public. Universities should not simply acquiesce to the desire that Clinton spoke of (only half-jokingly) that presidents have to rewrite their own history in self-glorifying memorials.
And President Obama himself would need to be involved in the process of reforming the presidential center. He has to a degree already taken on this role, for in his first full day in office in 2009 he revoked President Bush’s infamous Executive Order 13233, which restricted access to presidential records for political reasons. Obama and the university he partners with should continue this work so that presidential centers cease to remind us of the lines of the poem by Percy Shelley: "My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings, Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"