Clinton's latest legal hurdle: a library site for his legacy

Another land deal in Arkansas is causing problems for the legacy of Bill Clinton.

Instead of Whitewater, this time it's trouble on library hill. High above the Arkansas River in a desolate warehouse district, the proposed site of the William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Library is swirling with controversy.

Call it an initiation into the world of presidential myth and legend.

The lawsuits that currently beleaguer the building of the Clinton library continue a trend of donnybrooks that inevitably erupt when a president plans to enshrine his lasting legacy. And in many ways, these controversies serve as signs of the times.

A new era

The first four libraries - Roosevelt's, Eisenhower's, Truman's, and Hoover's (which was built later, in 1962) - had little opposition. But this was before Vietnam and Watergate, after all.

"The 1960s started a new era," says John Fawcett, a historian formerly with the National Archives. "People now like to protest and chain themselves to trees ... for public attention. Sure, some local people grumbled about Hoover. [But] then there was no mechanism to get the publicity for protests."

In Arkansas, the library debate has been raging since 1997, when Mr. Clinton rejected Hot Springs, Fayetteville, and Hope - each of which Clinton had once called home - as sites for his library. Instead, the president opted for Little Rock, which lured him with nearly $17 million for the land acquisition.

The city's board of directors devised a plan with $16.4 million in bonds to buy the land, vowing to pay the bonds off with taxes raised at the city's recreational facilities, including the distressed zoo.

Not surprisingly, this angered some citizens, and Nora Harris, a housewife in her 60s with a fierce reputation as city critic, filed a lawsuit in 1998. Though a judge dismissed the suit earlier this summer, she plans to appeal. The city, too, has had to sue a propertyowner who is refusing to sell a section of his land encroaching on the proposed site.

First libraries

Such conflicts never touched President Franklin Roosevelt in 1939 when he donated his personal and presidential papers to the US government, in effect creating the presidential library system.

In fact, the Roosevelt Library proved so successful that in 1955 Congress passed the Presidential Libraries Act, enabling other presidents to donate their historical materials to the government and ensuring preservation for a president's papers.

It hasn't been so easy since then, however. The Lyndon B. Johnson Library on the University of Texas at Austin campus faced hundreds of Vietnam protesters when it opened in 1971.

The John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library in Boston opened 15 years after Kennedy's assassination because of quarrels between Harvard academics and the site selection committee.

And in 1981, the Carter Center in Atlanta also faced heated political land issues. Civic groups sued the commission building the site, and some activists even chained themselves to trees.

Sometimes the resistance can simply be for political reasons. "Some people don't want a library for fear of tourism and development," says Curt Smith, author of a presidential library book and senior lecturer in English at the University of Rochester. "They could be a Democrat who doesn't want to honor a Republican or visa versa."

The controversies are not always local, however. Before Gerald Ford became president, he had promised his papers to his alma mater, the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. After his unexpected presidency, however, he planned to have his museum in Grand Rapids, Mich., a city in his old congressional district.

While this made both cities happy, some members of Congress felt two federally funded shrines for Ford were excessive.

So they began hearings to revise the Presidential Libraries Act. Today, former presidents must secure endowments to build their libraries, though Congress still provides funds to keep open what some say are important contributions to history.

It's our history

"It's not only their history, it's our history," says Curt Smith, author of a presidential library book and lecturer in English at the University of Rochester in New York. "You get a marvelous sense of what life was like. If you didn't have a library, you have a gap in American history."

For all the legal entanglements, the Clinton team is moving toward a lasting legacy immortalized in concrete and glass. The president and first lady recently selected a New York architect firm, and fundraising talks for the needed $80 million to $125 million have started in earnest.

"It may sound like a lot of money," says David Alsobrook, director of the George Bush Library and Museum in College Station, Texas. "But the city of Little Rock is going to benefit greatly. A presidential library always adds to a community."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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