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Tell the good and the bad at the Obama Presidential Center

Former President Barack Obama pointed out features of his proposed Obama Presidential Center, which is scheduled to be built in nearby Jackson Park. | Scott Olson/Getty Images

Barack Obama has promised that his future presidential center will include a display of the beautiful gowns Michelle Obama wore to state dinners.

Sure, why not. Gotta pull in the tourists.


But what we’d also like to see is a hologram of the former president warning the president of Syria in 2012 not to use chemical weapons against his own people. If Bashar al-Assad crossed that “red line,” Obama all but promised, the United States would respond with military force.

Assad did cross that line, but Obama did not make good on his threat. Critics say Obama’s failure to back up his words with action was among the biggest mistakes of his presidency.

Think that’ll get big play at the Obama Presidential Center?

All presidential libraries and centers pull their punches, but the news of last week that Obama has chosen not to accept the usual federal subsidies — no taxpayer money — in building his presidential center means he is freer than ever to tell the story of his presidency any way he chooses.

Our hope, really an expectation, is that Obama will hold himself to a high standard. Display the gowns, fine. But address forthrightly that “red line.” And the controversial use of deadly drones. And the failure to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center.

Obama, a former University of Chicago lecturer, is a natural teacher. He says he envisions a presidential center that educates and trains the “next generation” of American leaders. He has no interest, he says, in glorifying himself.

But that can be tough. A presidential library’s biggest financial backers are also that president’s biggest fans. They see only an American pharoah.

Draw a red line, Barack. Commit to history, not hagiography.

And back up your words with action.