Consumer Republic

Presidential libraries reflect our money-soaked culture
The high point of Bill Clinton’s relationship with the press occurred when the guests at the recent White House Correspondents Dinner were treated to a hilarious videotape of lame-duck Bill chasing Hillary’s departing limo with a bagged lunch. There was almost a whiff of Clinton nostalgia in the air.
So what better time to kick off the fundraising for the William J. Clinton Library, coming to the Arkansas riverfront in Little Rock in 2001. It takes time to raise over $100 million, especially when you’re courting money for the Democratic Party, not to mention a legal defense fund.
Since the foundation for the Clinton Library formed in early 1998, jokes about “oral history” and “presidential liebrary” have circulated. Although Clinton promised his library will document his impeachment’s role in “saving the Constitution,” don’t expect the Gap dress or the Oval Office cigar ashtray. This library/museum complex is designed to both remember the Clinton ’90s and forget them.
George Washington doesn’t have a presidential library. Nor does Lincoln. The presidential library system began in 1939 with Franklin Roosevelt. In an exquisitely patrician gesture, FDR not only gave the nation his presidential papers, but also the land in Hyde Park, N.Y., on which the modest library, designed by Roosevelt himself, was built.
Sixty years later, the megamillion Clinton Library, complete with a corporate-sponsored office tower, will sit on property condemned by the city of Little Rock and financed by park revenue bonds. Money from park bonds can only go to parks–which explains how the library site came to be known as a “presidential park.” If oral sex is not sex, then a library can be a park.
It is fascinating the way the evolution of presidential libraries resembles the changes in presidential politics. First, the “campaign” starts much sooner. It used to be presidents turned their thoughts to posterity once they were out of office. Now, the fundraising dinners and solicitation letters are part of the long goodbye of lame-duck administrations. (It’s a lot easier to raise the dough when your man is still in the White House.)
Plus, megabuck libraries blend seamlessly with our money-soaked political culture, offering a way to extend the fundraiser-in-chief’s duties far beyond term limits. Given Clinton’s addiction to electoral politics, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn he wishes his library cost more, the longer to keep him on the hustings. And this time, if the Buddhists want to contribute, it’s legal.
There’s no law that says soon-to-be-ex-presidents have to squeeze more grease from sympathetic fat cats. There is one, however, enacted in 1978, that demands they hand the stuff over to government custody at the end of their term. Roosevelt’s bequest was a president’s gift to history. For presidents since Nixon, it’s more like being under history’s surveillance.
The law doesn’t demand mammoth mausoleums for presidential papers; the tourism economy does. About 1.3 million people visited presidential libraries last year, and they don’t come to read the marginalia in Jimmy Carter’s correspondence. Tourist buses pull into College Station, Texas, to see a replica of the bomber George Bush flew during World War II. In Grand Rapids, Mich., at the Gerald Ford Museum, Americans can see the U.S. Embassy staircase fleeing Americans climbed to the helicopters during the fall of Saigon. Who says there’s no room for the relics of our national humiliation in presidential libraries?
To win the Clinton Library, Little Rock competed with Hope and Hot Springs, Ark., the way cities compete for sports franchises. Little Rock has mixed feelings about its native son, but who cares if the guy ends up living in Chappaqua, N.Y., if he provides tourist dollars in absentia? After all he’s put Arkansas through, it’s the least he can do.
I predict that even without the Gap dress, the Clinton Library will be a tourism sensation. What other administration has provided so many prurient dramas and Constitutional crises? Anyone who has watched the stock market’s recent gyrations can imagine how easily the Clinton era could become the good old days.
The only other presidential library that could match Clinton’s for controversial appeal is Richard Nixon’s–except he doesn’t have one. The Nixon materials, seized by court order, are unceremoniously housed in a National Archives annex in College Park, Md. If you want to see the tools used in the Watergate break-in, visit the Ford Museum. Town fathers of Whittier, Calif., wake up. Grand Rapids is stealing your tourist dollars. K