When US presidents leave office and retire to private life, they step out of the glare of daily public attention. But they're not forgotten by Americans, who still like to think of them as having some physical focus, the way they had as the chief executive when the nation knew they lived in the White House.
That is one reason why presidents need individual libraries and museums, as seven recent White House occupants now have. Three more (for Presidents Nixon, Carter, and Reagan) are in various stages of planning.
On Feb. 14 trustees of Stanford University will meet to discuss a proposal by supporters of Ronald Reagan to establish a three-part center on the university's campus in Palo Alto, Calif. The White House wants a library, a museum, and an independent study center. The remaining major point at issue is whether the latter would be administered by the university, by the Hoover Institution, or independently.
If the library winds up at Stanford, President Reagan would be joining his predecessors in locating it in an area with which he long has been associated, in this case California. President Truman's library is in his longtime hometown of Independence, Mo.; Franklin D. Roosevelt's is in Hyde Park, N.Y. When visitors come to the libraries, all but one of which also serve as museums, their sense of the presence of a president is strengthened by knowing that he spent time in the region. For years many visitors to the Truman library had the thrill of being greeted by the former President.
To scholars a presidential museum has a totally different meaning: It is a mother lode of raw information about the conduct of one man's presidency and about his political era, containing as it does millions of documents.
The seven existing libraries are for Presidents Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Ford.
In 1940 Roosevelt started the trend of each president's having a formal library by establishing one at his Hyde Park home. His predecessors simply had taken their papers with them upon retirement: In time many documents disappeared. In 1955 Congress established the ground rules for libraries: They would be built with private funds, then given to the government to administer.
Some of the remaining papers from 23 earlier presidents, starting with Washington, are housed in a special wing of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
Plans have been completed for a library for Jimmy Carter, to be two miles from downtown Atlanta, Ga. Since July the plans have been before Congress; unless it were to object in a few days - which it won't - they will be officially considered approved.
But if the questions of locating the Carter and Reagan libraries appear on their way toward resolution, the issue of the Nixon library is more complicated and, at the moment, in limbo. Because of the several laws and suits involving documents from the Nixon presidency, it literally will require an act of Congress for them to be moved from the Washington area. Representatives of the former President have negotiated for months with representatives of the government over the possibility of building a Nixon library in San Clemente, Calif. The sticking point was - and still is - reported to be the degree to which the public should have access to all documents.
To complicate the situation further, reports now are circulating that some Nixon supporters have decided to build a library without government approval and just put copies of documents in it.
To gain Capitol Hill support a Nixon library proposal likely would have to go through congressional hearings; a Senate committee established the precedent by holding hearings on the Carter library.
President Reagan's case is much less complicated. But first Stanford's trustees would need to agree that they would like the three-part Reagan center, with its many visitors, and agreement would need to be reached on administration of the research center. Certainly it is a most prestigious university; in choosing a site for his library the President could do no better than Stanford.