Debate Over Paying for Presidential Libraries

As Bush library opens in Texas, some taxpayers balk at public funding for 'shrines'

To some Americans, they are merely expensive warehouses, taxpayer-funded shrines to presidential-size egos. To others, they are invaluable educational tools and unique repositories of American history.

Yesterday's dedication of the Bush Presidential Library and Museum in College Station, Texas, reignites a simmering debate over public funding of these sites.

Each year, the federal government shells out $25 million to run the 10 presidential libraries around the country.

"It's a waste of money and time," groused one caller to C-Span during an on-air debate this week. "At $25 million, it's a pittance!" responded another. "We have too many $25 million pittances," said yet another, in response. The discussion turned so raucous, mild-mannered host Brian Lamb was forced to interrupt one agitated Las Vegas caller with an ear-splitting whistle.

Some of the public opposition for funding operational costs stems from the mistaken idea that construction of the libraries comes out of public coffers. In fact, the 10 presidential libraries in the National Archives and Records Administration system, including the new $83 million Bush library, were paid for by private donations.

Most of the funding comes from presidential supporters who want to ensure their man is remembered properly. But foreign entities are also big donors. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, for example, each contributed $1 million to the Bush library. The People's Republic of China also pitched in between $50,000 and $100,000.

Since passage of the Presidential Libraries Act of 1986, each facility is required to raise a private endowment large enough to augment the government's operational costs. The government pays for staffing and general maintenance. But special events - receptions and other functions that go beyond standard operations - are paid for privately.

Still, some taxpayers balk at what they see as an exercise in vanity, erecting a place for supporters to pay homage.

"We don't consider saving presidential papers preserving a shrine to an ego," counters National Archives spokeswoman Susan Cooper.

In an age when views are often shaped by 10-second sound bites, curators say that these are places where both scholars and average citizens can get a fuller understanding of the man, how decisions that shape history are made, and how the Oval Office works. Libraries and museums offer a glimpse into the backstairs lives of first families at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

The idea for individual libraries and museums got its start in 1939, when Franklin D. Roosevelt gave his papers to the federal government. He considered the papers and artifacts of all presidents critical pieces of American history.

By the 1950s, Congress signed off on future libraries. Every president since Herbert Hoover has one in his honor.

The museums showcase the important and the arcane. Priceless gifts presented to presidents, such as centuries-old Persian urns and jewel-encrusted horse saddles, are on exhibit.

Exhibits also often display an administration's embarrassing or dark days. The LBJ library in Austin, Texas, the most widely visited, has a section devoted to the Vietnam conflict that troubled Lyndon Johnson throughout his tenure.

The Bush museum has a section that illustrates and explains the Gulf War. Bronze statues in the plaza in front of the museum represent the shattering of the Berlin Wall. Another re-creation replicates the work area Mr. Bush used at Camp David. "It's the whole ball of wax," explained Bush yesterday before the dedication ceremony.

Fund-raising and planning often begin while a president is still in office. President Clinton recently scouted several potential sites for his library on a trip to Little Rock, Ark.

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