- - Thursday, March 12, 2015

Sometime this month, the Barack Obama Foundation will likely announce the specific site of the president’s library. It’s expected to be in Chicago, but that’s not the big news. Rather, the 14th presidential library, like the 44th occupant of the White House, will probably be the most controversial because it will stray so far from the aims of the original one begun by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939. At that time, FDR donated his personal and presidential papers to the federal government, even pledging part of his estate in Hyde Park, New York, for the site.

What Roosevelt had in mind was simple, as he indicated in his dedication speech to the library on June 30, 1941: “To bring together the records of the past and to house them in buildings where they will be preserved for the use of men and women in the future.” In other words, researchers would go to Hyde Park to examine materials and subsequently write about the 32nd chief executive. Fifty years ago, as a young assistant professor, I researched files at the FDR library for several days. It was this historian’s delight because the materials were numerous, there were no attempts to sanitize the documents — and there was very little in the library devoted to a museum.

To be sure, FDR wasn’t compelled to turn over his papers to the federal government. Presidents from the time of Washington could do what they wanted with what they compiled in office, and not until 1978 was legislation enacted that made records of the president and his staff the property of the federal government. Other laws ensured that the money to build such libraries had to be private funds, but their management would be paid for and handled by the National Archives and Records Administration.

Not surprisingly, for recent presidents, the libraries have been short on exhaustive materials for researchers, thanks to restrictions, and long on showy exhibits. Scholars must spend too much frustrating time trying to gain access to materials through the Freedom of Information Act and too little time examining sources. Worse, the National Archives is an advocate of a public relations approach to the institutions, as illustrated by its website’s raison d’etre: “Presidential Libraries promote understanding of the presidency and the American experience. We preserve and provide access to historical materials, support research, and create interactive programs and exhibits that educate and inspire.” How about educate and inform?

The dilemma of the Obama administration is that it has argued that it has few personal records of the president. It has touted its existence so far by contending that the president knows little about what’s happening in his administration. He learned about the Internal Revenue Service targeting conservative groups for examination through reading newspapers. Other “phony scandals” were identified in a similar fashion. He hasn’t disclosed where and what he was doing during the Benghazi attacks, didn’t have a hand in the Affordable Care Act, wasn’t aware of its start-up problems until they hit the news, and, if there are any emails dealing with any of these and other subjects, they are executive privilege communications. As for the 22 times Mr. Obama has noted he isn’t a monarch and can’t do what only Congress can do in terms of controlling immigration policy, that seems to be a record that only House Speaker John Boehner and Fox News have recorded. In sum, what the president really does each and every day in office may never be known.

That’s illustrated by one set of preliminary design plans that divide the library into six areas, only one of which — No. 4 in sequence — deals with presidential duties. The first focuses on his early life (a lot of community organizing, for sure, and probably nary a word about the Rev. Jeremiah Wright), the second with his legislative career (not a chance there are records listing the 129 times Mr. Obama voted “present” as an Illinois legislator). The third and the fifth are the most baffling, the former devoted to presidential campaigns, the latter to his “public image” (whatever that means). The sixth deals with his family and personal life.

Barack Obama came to Washington promising the most “transparent” administration in history. Instead, his term in office and presidential library will be reflected as the most “transfigured” one, glorifying and exalting actions that are more make-believe — more fantasy — than reality.

Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.

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