Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


Presidential library legacy

By AT / February 23, 1987



IT happens more often than not. Something new is proposed; those affected reach for the brake. That kind of hesitation was running high at Stanford University recently as several faculty members protested anew the planned 1988 construction on campus of the Reagan presidential library. Igniting the latest spark: the comment of the director of the conservative, Stanford-based Hoover Institution, a significant contributor to the Reagan policy agenda, that the new library would create a ``Reagan connection'' that should make the entire university proud.

Skip to next paragraph

Academics wary of too close an association with one man's ideology or reputation have tried to fight off planned presidential libraries before. Protests at Duke University effectively kept Richard Nixon from putting his library and archives at his law school alma mater.

Universities are proud of their reputation for nonpartisanship. But the library of any president should enhance rather than diminish a university's standing as an intellectual center. Smiling on the records of one president but not another smacks of a guilt by association no university should condone.

Scholars gain a rare opportunity to evaluate an administration by access to the detailed original records. Like a visit to the White House, such libraries and museums help put visitors in touch with the human aspects of the presidency.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, concerned about the loss and neglect of important White House papers, launched the idea of a presidential library, donating part of his Hyde Park estate in upper New York for a site. Since then, libraries housing the papers of Herbert Hoover, Harry Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower have also been started at hometown sites.

The more recent tendency to put presidential libraries on university campuses, the case with the Kennedy, Johnson, Ford, and Carter libraries, is by and large a good one, increasing access. Still, most presidential libraries are underused. Most of the 2 million annual visitors are sightseers.

Funds for the land and building of presidential centers are always privately raised. The taxpayer pays $15 million a year for upkeep and operations handled by the National Archives.

Thus taxpayers are within their rights in occasionally objecting to the growing size and land use of presidential libraries.

The $22 million plan to build a four-lane access road through a historic section of Atlanta to the Carter Center has rightly been a point of dispute.

Further complaints are expected against the height and scale of the Spanish Mission-style Reagan library. It is larger than any other except the Johnson library in Texas, and the most expensive.

Legislation passed last year will limit the size of future presidential libraries and require endowments to support 20 percent of the cost of upkeep.

The love of challenge that leads a candidate to shoot for the White House in the first place often continues. Lyndon Johnson was said to be so eager to have more visitors come to his library than any other that he considered offering free doughnuts and opening at 7 a.m.

But any tendency to establish too much of a living personal memorial to a president should be resisted. Planners should strive to strike a balance. As Sen. William Roth noted a few years back: ``Dignity and opulence should not be confused.''

Still, the nation is decidedly the richer for its presidential libraries. Each offers the opportunity for an intensive focus on one man and his administration.