The Untold History of Presidential Libraries

last campaign

anthony clarkAnthony Clark is a former speechwriter, committee professional staffer, and legislative director in the U.S. House of Representatives. In the 111th Congress he directed hearings and investigations of the National Archives and presidential libraries for the House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform. His new book The Last Campaign: How Presidents Rewrite History, Run for Posterity and Enshrine Their Legacies was published this month [available on Amazon]. Professor Richard Toye [RT] recently interviewed Clark [AC] about how the presidential library system is influenced by power and politics.

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.

RT: You mention site choice, which is clearly fundamental. There has been a lot of speculation recently about where Barack Obama’s library will be located. What are the factors that influence a library’s location? Continue reading “The Untold History of Presidential Libraries”