One of the distinctive features of American politics in comparison to the UK is the establishment of Presidential Libraries and Museums. Franklin D. Roosevelt started the trend with the creation of a library at his home at Hyde Park, New York in the early 1940s. Since then, every president has had such an institution, administered by the National Archives and Records Administration, and one was created retrospectively for Herbert Hoover. Texas is particularly well-served, because it has three presidential libraries: those of Lyndon B. Johnson, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush.
This April we explored Texas’s presidential libraries and museums, looking at available archival material (relating especially to Anglo-American relations, and Space policy) and assessing the interpretation that each offers of the record of the president concerned. We started at Dallas, with George Bush Junior’s library, located at Southern Methodist University, then moved on to LBJ at the University of Austin, Texas, and are currently writing this blog in College Station, home to the library of Bush Senior. Continue reading “On the Trail of the Presidents”→
RT: This book has taken you years to research and write. It’s clearly a labour of love. But some people would think that presidential libraries are rather a dry subject. What is it about them that you find so interesting?
AC: I began the book believing I would write a simple history of the presidential library system. But as I discovered more and more about the politics that drive the libraries, and inappropriately was kept from seeing hundreds of thousands of the National Archives’ own records about them, I began to change the focus of the book.
The system has strayed from its original purpose: to preserve presidential records and make them available to the public. The libraries have become taxpayer-funded legacy factories, and arms of the national political parties – particularly the Republican Party.
Modern presidential libraries open about four years after presidents leave office, but the papers of their presidencies will not be opened for 100 or more years. History is being locked up for a century due to conscious choices that Congress and National Archives officials have made and continue to make about our priorities, our budgets, and the sensitivities of powerful people.
The politics are fascinating: the site selection process, and what factors make for a winning bid; how they are funded, both with hundreds of millions of private dollars, and a billion dollars of taxes each decade; the exhibits that spin or ignore controversies; the political events, such as presidential primary debates and “debut” speeches by aspiring candidates; and the complex mechanisms that work to keep records – the core mission – closed, and unavailable for a century or more.