We in the inky newspaper trade are famous for disdaining our brethren in public relations. Though, having dipped my toe in that world, I know there are lessons for us there: Be direct. Be honest. Address the elephant in the room.
And as someone who often tasks himself with the trick of making something that is interesting to me also interesting to the average reader, I use a PR technique: When you’ve got a dull story to tell, marry it to something interesting. Think of it as the Spoonful of Sugar Trick. The best example of this is when Dramamine, the motion-sickness pill, created a roller coaster team and sent it across the country, knowing that news organizations that would shrug off a mere nausea medication jostle to set up their cameras at dawn to catch a group of attractive young folk pitting themselves against the local theme park’s coasters.
Thus when I found myself trying to tell what is perhaps the most tedious story ever committed to a book — the death of the men’s hat industry, in “Hatless Jack,” I thought to tell it to through a subject that people actually did care about: John F. Kennedy who, despite popular impression, was actually the last American president inaugurated in a silk top hat.
The book involved a lot of research, from the Library of Congress to the British Library in London. I flew to Boston to spend a few days beavering in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum and so, as somebody who has actually used a presidential library, I ought to put my two cents in regarding Barack Obama’s future library.
Lynn Sweet wrote Friday about the mayor’s efforts to bring the library here, and how the library is “the University of Chicago’s to lose given its very close ties to the Obama family and its long list of wealthy potential donors in the Obama orbit.”
Those factors are significant. But I want to toss another reason into the hopper, based on experience: Chicago must get it because Chicago is the best location.
God bless Hawaii. I’m sure it’s very nice, particularly this time of year. Obama was born there, we can all agree (actually we can’t, and there’s a book in that, one that will be researched here at the Obama library).
But Hawaii is nothing if not off the beaten path. When I went to the Kennedy library, I dug in my pocket, bought a ticket, booked myself into a hotel. Had it been in Hawaii, I guarantee you, I wouldn’t have bothered. Chicago is in the center of the country.
Sweet also mentioned Columbia University in New York. Obama can’t put his library there because, having been on campus in August, I can report: There’s no room. Columbia is shoehorned in as it is. You couldn’t add a coffee shop. Were there a spot to build it, the cost would be extraordinary. Chicago has lots of affordable land around Hyde Park to create a worthy edifice for Obama.
Those of you used to yanking information off the Internet might wonder: Who cares where the library is? Won’t everything in it just be online? Answer: No. Just as the mass of hieroglyphics in the basement of the Oriental Institute have never been translated, so much, maybe most material in a presidential library will be unscanned, papers and documents and notes and letters.
There was a moment of research glory in the Kennedy library I’ll never forget. My hat book begins with a man standing up and waving a clipping during a 1962 stockholder meeting for the Hat Corporation of America. I found the scene in a 1962 Wall Street Journal story. I knew a few details, no more.
In Boston, I was going through envelopes containing letters of complaint to Kennedy, randomly searching for stuff about hats. And here was a letter to his press secretary, Pierre Salinger, demanding to know why the president was posing for fashion spreads. In the letter, a folded up rectangle of newspaper that I immediately realized was the exact same clipping being waved on the first page of my book. Right there. I could look at it, study it, use it. I gasped, overjoyed.
People come to cities for many reasons. Millennium Park and the big stainless steel bean come to mind. Rahm Emanuel is right to grab that library. Not only is it good for the city, good for the U. of C. neighborhood, but it’ll be good for the researchers who must use it. Fifty years from now, some young man writing “Doorjamb-Gnawingly Insane: Those Who Hated Barack Obama” will paw through boxes of handbills and letters and hand-carved hate effigies that are brought to him. Unless the stuff really is all scanned online, and then I suppose you can put the library on Mars and it wouldn’t matter. But we still want it here, the only logical spot to honor our logical president.