- The Washington Times - Monday, February 28, 2000

Some say lavish presidential libraries like the controversial, $100 million edifice planned for President William Jefferson Clinton are merely monuments to mammoth egos. And they're partly right.

The privately constructed libraries obviously are expensive memorials to the chief executives and their administrations. But they're more than mere extravagant mausoleums and not at all like the Egyptian pyramids to which they've been compared.

Yet because the libraries rarely make the news, few understand how they came to be, what they do, why they're controversial or how they meld with the overall government apparatus.

As far as scholars, educators and the U.S. government are concerned, the libraries are among the most important research sites in the United States.

"All you have to do is check the footnotes of the major prize-winning books and monographs dealing with the presidents and you'll see they all reference the presidential libraries," says Page Miller, director of the National Coordinating Committee for Promotion of History.

Beyond that, chamber of commerce boosters and tourism touts say the libraries are economic engines, tugging the curious and their dollars to communities where the libraries are located.

"During the year before the George Bush Library in College Station, Texas, opened, 38 tour buses visited that city. In the first four months after it was finished, 450 rolled in," says Little Rock, Ark., businessman Skip Rutherford. As head of the William Jefferson Clinton library foundation, Mr. Rutherford is up on such things.

Although the Clinton library is still being planned, it has attracted "a major corporation that will build a multistory office adjacent to the library site. The company will create 700 jobs and bring a $25 million payroll to the city," Mr. Rutherford says. He predicts the Clinton library will generate $10.7 million in business annually.

It is also expected to lure riders to Little Rock's new but mostly riderless downtown light-rail system, if the line is extended to run to the Clinton library. To help insure the line and the library gets that boost, Mr. Clinton included $5 million for Little Rock light-rail expansion in his annual budget.

In the 25 years attendance figures have been kept, presidential libraries have attracted 33,502,819 visitors. Even as Little Rock folks were feuding last year over various aspects of the proposed Clinton library, 1,415,305 professors, schoolchildren and tourists were traipsing into the nation's 10 presidential libraries. Some 18,200 more searched the papers of the late President Richard Nixon.

Mr. Nixon has no edifice for his papers and paraphernalia. As part of the fallout from the Watergate scandal, Congress ordered the National Archives and Records Administration to seize "the historical materials created and received by the White House" during Mr. Nixon's five-year administration. The Nixon papers lie in the National Archives' College Park, Md., facility.

Presidential libraries don't resemble the libraries most people know. For one thing, they contain few books. They're actually archives meaning repositories where records and files are organized and maintained.

Taken together, presidential libraries contain more than 300,000,000 pages of text, 5,000,000 photographs, 14,000,000 feet of movie film, 70,000 hours of audio and video recordings and 330,000 artifacts like President John F. Kennedy's Oval Office rocker and 26-foot sailboat and President Lyndon B. Johnson's limousine. Mr. Johnson's library also has a full-size, lifelike, automated statue of him gesturing and talking.

Unlike most public libraries, presidential facilities are built using private funds. Congress passed the Presidential Libraries Act 44 years ago and stipulated that such facilities be built and endowed by private foundations.

Once finished, the National Archives and Records Administration assumes control of the papers and other archival materials. The government pays the archivists' salaries and also pays for maintenance and repairs of the facility. The foundation takes responsibility for exhibits and activities.

The presidential libraries are, for the most part, designed by acclaimed architects. World famous I.M. Pei designed Mr. Kennedy's library. The prize-winning architects James Stewart Polshek and Richard Olcott will create Mr. Clinton's on the bank of the Arkansas River, and exhibit designer Ralph Appelbaum will do the Clinton displays.

Mr. Rutherford, Mr. Clinton's friend and library planning coordinator, admits he "gets teased a lot" about the Clinton scandal stories Mr. Appelbaum might depict and the sensational Clinton exhibits that could but won't be displayed.

The designer of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Hyde Park, N.Y., library was famous too, though not an architect. Mr. Roosevelt himself designed the $376,000 building. Completed in 1941, it was the first presidential library.

Noting that Mr. Roosevelt had designed and built himself a library, President Herbert Hoover, Mr. Roosevelt's predecessor, built one too. "Posterity envy," a Boston Globe writer called it.

With the exception of Mr. Nixon, every president since Mr. Hoover has his special library. So in addition to those named, the Gerald R. Ford and Ronald W. Reagan libraries complete the "Presidential Libraries system" administered by the Office of Presidential Libraries at College Park.

The Roosevelt library, is "very dignified and small," says historian Anna Nelson. Miss Nelson has done research in five of the libraries. She categorizes them:

"The Truman library is folksy. Kennedy's is full of panache. Johnson's is Texas big and showy. Carter's is southern and pleasant and sprawling. Dwight D. Eisenhower's is very removed, distant, very much a kind of environment that shows he was removed from political life until he was president. But in all these presidential libraries the archivists are splendid."

That last observation is widely shared and most significant to the professionals who spend weeks, months and more perusing presidential papers, often thrilling to discoveries that most would find as enthralling as watching a computer cursor blink.

Steven Goldzwig, an author and professor at Marquette University's College of Communication, refers to the excitement of reading comments and other "marginalia" on President Jimmy Carter's correspondence that show he was tougher and more commanding than reported.Then there was Mr. Goldzwig's discovery of a letter to Mr. Eisenhower from a soldier who returned his Medal of Honor to protest Ike's forced integration of a Little Rock school in 1957.

Only about 10,000 of the libraries' 1.3 million annual visitors thumb through presidential papers to make such discoveries. Some who do wish they didn't have to chase about the country at considerable cost to do so.

"In the archives field and in library literature, there's continued discussion and concern about the dispersal of presidential records. It's thought it might be better if the presidential archives were centralized," says Duke University's Deborah Jakubs, an official of the Association of Research Libraries.

For most visitors though, the controversy is of no concern. They come to view films and dioramas, to hear audio exhibits and ogle displays of chief executives' personal effects and gifts individuals and foreign nations gave them.

All this is arranged to give a complete, accurate portrayal of the presidents in their native settings plus a feel for the state of the nation during their tenure. Thus the materials also contain unflattering information.

But not all exhibits concern the president. Many present important art works and various traveling exhibits.

For instance, the Hoover Library in West Branch, Iowa, has three new shows yearly. Recent shows presented such diverse topics as Christmas trees and combat photography. Another displayed "artwork done by kids and given to presidents from Hoover through Clinton," a staffer explains.

Among its activities, the Harry S. Truman Library maintains an "interactive decision theater." Given the facts about a problem Mr. Truman faced, visitors are asked to decide what they would have done.

The Truman library is "the first to get involved in school curricula," says Ray Geselbracht, special assistant to the library director. He says high schools in the Independence, Mo., area will prep students to participate in daylong exercises at the library.

The youths will play the roles of president and Cabinet members and work out responses to, say, North Korea's 1950 invasion of South Korea, or the possibility of building an H-bomb. The role-players also will prepare statements and be questioned by students acting as members of the news media. At school they will discuss their decisions.

Bill Howard of Atlanta's Convention and Visitors Bureau explains, "The Jimmy Carter Library serves the city from an image point of view. It is a center of humanitarian and diplomatic activity. World leaders and specialists on issues of interest to the Carters go there for meetings and workshops."

And, confides Mr. Howard, the facility is a favorite "venue" of the upper crust who "host events in the elegant surroundings" to show "a good profile."

Is all this needed?

True, the perception that presidential files belong to the nation and the existence of the libraries tend to prevent presidents from destroying papers, as Chester A. Arthur did the day before he died.

But George Washington has no presidential library. Ditto for Abraham Lincoln, James Madison, Theodore Roosevelt and others. The Library of Congress houses their material. The papers of all presidents could go there.

Yet Mr. Rutherford, the Clinton friend, says, "The records have to be stored somewhere." And he insists the presidential libraries add a lot. They're "good for the country," he says.

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