It is sometimes observed that universities, far from being centers for the free exchange of different viewpoints, frequently are victims of their own orthodoxy in their eagerness to excommunicate promoters of views that are considered to be outside the pale or otherwise unacceptable. That type of complaint most often comes from conservatives who are appalled by the progressive and politically correct orthodoxy that dominates many departments at most universities but it also applies to liberals who seek to promote alternative views at colleges that regard themselves as Christian.
With that in mind, I am somewhat conflicted over the idea of “presidential libraries” being collocated at major universities, because it creates a perhaps unhappy matrix where politics, personal commemoration, and archival information presumed to be both reliable and comprehensive have to coexist. Most Americans would likely be surprised to learn that there are 13 presidential libraries, many of which are attached to museums and supporting foundations, all of which are now operated by the National Archive and Records Administration (NARA). The first such library was founded by Herbert Hoover, but a number of libraries preserving presidential papers were established privately prior to that administration for presidents Washington, the two Adams, Jefferson, Lincoln, Grant, Hayes, Wilson, and Coolidge.
Currently, the libraries themselves are constructed from private contributions, and some of the more recent ones even have endowments to help with their operating expenses. After they open, all the libraries and exhibit rooms are funded through the Presidential Libraries Act of 1955 and are managed by the NARA, which provides them with much of their material and pays their actual operating costs, currently in excess of $100 million annually. Add-on institutes linked to the libraries are privately funded, normally by a foundation set up for that purpose.
Presidential libraries actually attract few visitors. The three most popular are those of JFK, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton. Others get by through hosting special events like book signings that might or might not be linked to the presidency or by featuring theme park-like exhibits. Even the most popular, the Reagan library, recently featured a display of Walt Disney treasures.
The older presidential libraries are essentially historical collections of presidential papers and are only to a limited extent partisan, as the contentious issues that might have divided the nation once upon a time have subsequently faded. That makes them a genuine resource for researchers, aided measurably by the declassification of many documents that were considered too sensitive when they first opened their doors.
The newer libraries have likewise been promoted as repositories for documentary evidence relating to a presidency but they are in fact much more self-absorbed, engaged in what one critic describes as “legacy polishing.” They include numerous unclassified documents that present a certain point of view, but most information that would be of interest to scholars does not begin to appear until more than a decade after the library opens, after it has been “processed.” Even then, it is reasonable to assume that many documents will take decades to be declassified, or may never appear at all on grounds of national security, or potential embarrassment.
The issue of presidential libraries has some immediacy for me as my alma mater, the University of Chicago, has recently been chosen to become the home of the Barack Obama Presidential Center. In the words of the press release, Chicago has agreed to “collaborate” with the Center, which will nevertheless be “independent” from the university. The Center will include a library, museum, exhibit rooms, and office space for the Barack Obama Foundation. The city of Chicago is donating the land while construction costs will be privately raised. The actual operation of the center will depend on both NARA funding and a private endowment. As hosting a presidential library is regarded as prestigious, the university is already boasting of the achievement to us alumni, envisioning in the Center the creation of a “new global destination.”
The Great Seal of the University of Chicago proclaims “Crescat Scientia Vita Excolator,” in English, “increase knowledge so life can be improved.” But if the actual aim of a top university espousing the highest academic standards is to enhance our understanding of the world, there are certain pitfalls in tying oneself to what is an essentially self-serving political initiative.
The Chairman of the Obama Foundation, for example, describes the development as a “dynamic, vibrant forum for civic participation, education, action and progress” while a local community organizer sees a “tremendous opportunity to help culturally significant neighborhoods become vibrant and more economically self-sufficient.” University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer adds his own vision of a “catalyst for economic and cultural opportunities as well as community programing.”
One has to wonder exactly how the repository of record for presidential papers part fits in to all that exuberance, and it is fair to ask if it is reasonable for tax-supported monuments to ex-presidents to be so focused on social engineering. And Obama, like his predecessor, is not exactly very easy to define, meaning that an assessment of his time in office will be inevitably take on the coloration of whoever is structuring the narrative and to what end. Which means that it will likely leave out more than it includes, and therein lies the dilemma.
Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize will no doubt be prominently on display, but one will likely be unsuccessful when seeking the critical documents needed to explain the arguments made and the reasoning behind assassination by drone. Given that it is impossible to sit in on a meeting that took place six years before, the position papers and meeting notes would be invaluable in trying to assess what occurred, but those documents will not be in the library as they potentially disrupt the narrative and are considered both too recent and too sensitive for public consumption.
The George W. Bush Presidential Center at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, which includes a library, museum, and think tank, provides some insights into what the Barack H. Obama library is likely to offer. First of all, the museum portion is essentially a celebration, offering displays on what the administration itself saw as its positive achievements, which the George W. Bush Foundation president describes as “…a reflection of what [the Bushes] think is important about what happened in their service.”
Given recent comments made by George W. Bush on some of his most criticized policies, it is clear that there has been no serious retrospection regarding the Iraq invasion or on the use of renditions and torture by the CIA, exigencies which both he and his museum clearly view as aspects of a “war presidency.” Nor is there any second-guessing about Hurricane Katrina or the financial meltdown and bank bailout at the end of his term of office. All of those issues are dealt with using displays and video defensively, providing explanations that amount to damage control featuring recorded speakers like Condi Rice, Andrew Card, and John Bolton. For the serious student there is thin gruel, with no opportunity for rigorous inquiry into whether the White House had a reasonable case to justify its handling of all those evolving situations. At the dedication Bill Clinton even joked about the library, which includes W’s collection of signed baseballs, as the “latest, grandest example of former presidents to rewrite history.”
So assuming that the Obama Library will be a replay of the W version with a lot more community outreach thrown in, I would like to see the University of Chicago exploit its leverage over the situation at this development stage to insist that there be at least a modicum of transparency and at least token accountability in examining the full record of the Obama White House, warts and all. President Obama should certainly get top marks for his opening to Cuba and his willingness to negotiate with Iran, but there ought to be plenty of room for a serious discussion over the questionable mandate referred to as Obamacare as well as regarding the two wars in Libya and Syria motivated by “regime change,” initiated by the White House against nations with which we Americans were not at war.
And then there are the innocent victims of the U.S. foreign policy that has been a hallmark of both the Bush and Obama years, an estimated 1-2 million Muslims who have perished in the so-called “War on Terror,” to include the more than 3,000 civilians who have been killed under Obama by drones. And there needs to be some explanation for the treatment of whistleblowers who have attempted to expose criminal and unconstitutional activity only to be silenced through imprisonment as well as for the “renditioned” and tortured foreigners seeking redress in U.S. courts who have been blocked through repeated invocation of the State Secrets Privilege.
Obama can also be rightly criticized for his overexploitation of claimed executive privilege, something which, perhaps not coincidentally has found strong and vocal support in the University of Chicago Law School. And finally, there is the possibly unconstitutional NSA domestic surveillance program as well as the targeting and killing of American citizens by drone without any due process that the Founders of this nation would recognize.
These are all serious issues. If the President can make a solid case for his actions he should do so through the mechanism of his Center and show the public the documents and records of the deliberations that supported his decisions. That is precisely what a taxpayer-supported presidential library should do, and it is also what the University of Chicago, as a collaborator in the project, should demand.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.