Now that Chicago has landed the Obama presidential library, here’s hoping it will be more than a shrine.
Or will the University of Chicago roll over?
Presidential libraries and museums have a habit of pulling their punches. They have a way of looking on the bright side to blinding excess. They have a way of reflecting the biased perceptions of the people who put up the money — the former president’s wealthy friends and family — much to the exasperation of serious historians.
You won’t see that infamous “Mission Accomplished” sign at President George W. Bush’s library in Texas. But you might come away thinking that, golly, “W” was the best darn decider ever.
You won’t hear about the Monica Lewinsky scandal at President Bill Clinton’s library in Arkansas, except for some diplomatic generalities served up in an exhibit dedicated to the “politics of persecution.”
But the Obama library should be held to a higher standard. Few if any other presidential libraries enjoy a formal collaboration with a place as committed to serious scholarship as the University of Chicago. The university fought hard to “host” the Obama library, and now it is obliged to insist on a no-spin accounting of Obama’s life in politics and two terms as president.
If Obama’s pals want to dedicate an entire wing of the library to the president’s successful hunt for Osama bin Laden, we’re not sure who can stop them. But serious attention should be paid as well to, say, the president’s controversial use of killer drones and his failure to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center.
The bias common to presidential libraries is inevitable, given who writes the checks. The National Archives runs 13 of the libraries, and it will run the Obama library, but it funds only salaries and day-to-day operating costs. Private foundations, run by a president’s loyalists, raise the money to build the facilities and pay for exhibits.
This can get messy.
The Nixon Foundation, which raises funds for the Nixon Library & Museum in Yorba Linda, California, was outraged eight years ago when its federally-appointed director, Timothy Naftali, dared to create exhibits and schedule events that took an unsparing look at the Watergate scandal. Among the speakers Naftali brought in was, of all people, Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward.
Naftali must have seen the fury coming. On the foundation’s board were Nixon’s two daughters and his brother, who felt he was rubbing Watergate in their faces. The director’s tenure grew only rockier, and he moved on in 2011.
The Obama Foundation, true to form and understandably, is run by loyalists. Chairman of the board is the president’s close friend Martin Nesbitt. Other board members include his old campaign manager, David Plouffe, and his sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng.
The Obama Foundation voluntarily discloses the names of its donors, a healthy policy that should help the library avoid the worst accusations of spin. At least there won’t be the sort of unseemly conflict of interest encountered by the Clinton library, which refuses to release its full list of donors, when it took money from the wife of an accused financial crook who was later pardoned by Clinton. The Clinton library, of course, does not include much information about those last-minute pardons.
The University of Chicago did a terrific job of bringing the Barack Obama Presidential Center to the South Side of Chicago, where it belongs. Take a bow, folks.
But the university has more work to do. It must keep the pressure on Barack and Michelle Obama and the Obama Foundation, who are driven by a desire to nail down and celebrate his legacy.
It must make sure the Obama library is worthy of a scholarly association with one of the world’s great universities.