The editorial writers at Bloomberg View have come up with the worst idea for a presidential library yet. Prompted by the announcement that a foundation has been created to pick a site for President Obama’s library, Bloomberg is urging that rather than putting the facility in one place — Hawaii, Chicago, any of the places Obama went to college — it should be spread among several communities.
“In Obama’s case, a presidential library structured like a chain of islands (as opposed to a city-state) would actually be appropriate — reflecting the arc of his life. Obama has defined himself as a man of many parts, the first amalgamated president,” the editorial asserts. It concludes by asking “What would be wrong with having a few shrines/centers/libraries? The reason people want them is because they bring business — and status — to communities. So spread the wealth, Mr. President. It’s not such a bad message for someone so focused on addressing wealth.”
Pardon me for gasping. Given the failure of Obama’s stimulus spending, the Bloomberg editors have apparently decided to double down and advocate a series of Obama edifice complexes to spur local economies.
I suggest an opposite approach. Presidential libraries have become a plague upon the land, ever since Franklin Roosevelt insisted on building the first one in 1940. They are largely built and maintained with private funds, which means a president usually spends an inordinate amount of time raising money for them while in office. In some cases, that can lead to outright corruption as the case of Denise Rich, a huge donor to the Clinton Library, demonstrated. Just before Bill Clinton left office, she helped secure a highly unusual presidential pardon for her former husband Marc Rich, a fugitive financier accused of trading with Iran during the 1979 hostage crisis.
Witold Rybczynski, a professor emeritus of urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania, points out in the New York Times, that “presidential archives have grown immense,” the museums accompanying them overblown, and “the architecture has become monumental.” He urges a small is better approach, advice no recent president has seen fit to follow.
In Obama’s case, let’s at least hope he doesn’t follow Bloomberg’s advice and opt for a franchise operation of libraries. My vote for the site of the Obama library is Chicago, the home of Saul Alinsky, who supplied Obama with his theories of community organizing, and of the Daley machine, which gave the kickstart to his political career along with valuable lessons on how to reward friends and punish enemies. My biggest fear is that the Obama Library will be the first presidential facility to include a training academy so young people might emulate his style and substance.