Presidential Library FAQ

On Saturday Bill Clinton will be free to devote his time to his pet project: The William J. Clinton Presidential Library. Just what are presidential libraries?

Presidential libraries are hybrid creatures: part scholarly archive, part celebration, part privately funded, part run by the government. Presidential libraries are repositories for the papers and records generated by a president during his term in office. They are also museums that have permanent and temporary exhibits, lectures and seminars, and gift shops.

Who pays for a presidential library?

Both private citizens and taxpayers. Before any bricks get laid, a private foundation is created to raise the money for the both the building and an endowment to run special programs and exhibits. In order to keep former presidents from erecting another Great Pyramid in their honor, the government requires that the bigger the square footage, the bigger the endowment. Once the building is dedicated, the library is turned over to the National Archives and Records Administration, which runs it, paying for both the staff, such as a director and archivists–who are federal employees–and much of the maintenance.

What’s the story on Clinton’s library?

The 140,000-square-foot library is going to be located on a 27-acre park on the Arkansas River in downtown Little Rock–the $12 million parcel of land was donated by the city. It will house, among other things, the 77 million pieces of paper generated by Clinton and at least 40 million e-mails. The complex will also have a new Clinton School of Public Service affiliated with the University of Arkansas. The whole thing is expected to cost between $125 and $150 million and to open by early 2004. In comparison, the 69,000-square-foot George H. W. Bush Library, opened in 1997 on the campus of Texas A & M University, cost about $80 million–of course, he was in office half as long as his successor.

What grateful nation helped make the Bush Library possible?

Kuwait. (Remember the Gulf War?) Various Kuwaiti entities contributed more than $3 million.

How’s Clinton’s fund raising going?

The last documents, released in 1999, indicated there was $6 million on hand. But don’t expect Bill to scale things down to a presidential toll booth. His chief fund-raiser is Democratic money machine Terence McAuliffe, and Clinton has been known to wrest a few bucks out of people as well. Much of the money is scheduled to come in multiyear pledges, starting this year. Although the foundation does not have to reveal its donors, it’s been reported that Hollywood executives Steven Spielberg and David Geffen have pledged. The Bank of America has donated $500,000, and Ron Burkle, a California supermarket magnate, has also pledged a large contribution.

Didn’t I read that Michael Milken, the Wall Street financier who served time for securities fraud, has something to do with funding the library?

Indirectly. Ron Burkle, who feels he owes his fortune in part to Milken, has been lobbying heavily for a presidential pardon for Milken. A spokesman for Milken says he himself is not contemplating a donation to the library. (Pssst, Bill, if you want Milken to contemplate one, you’ve got until Saturday morning to pardon the guy.)

How many presidential libraries are there, and when did they start?

Clinton’s will be the 11th. The system didn’t start until 1939, when Franklin Roosevelt donated his papers, both personal and presidential, to the federal government and offered his Hyde Park estate as a place to preserve them. Until then there was no formal method for keeping presidential papers. In 1950 Harry Truman announced he would also build a library, and five years later Congress passed the Presidential Libraries Act, which created modern presidential libraries. (The Herbert Hoover library was grandfathered into the system by the Libraries Act.) The other official libraries are for Bush, Carter, Eisenhower, Ford, Johnson, Kennedy, and Reagan.

Hey, Nixon has a library. Why didn’t you include that?

Nixon’s library is private and not part of the federal system. However, his presidential papers are stored by the Archives in College Park, Md. By law they must be maintained in the Washington, D.C., area.

How did Watergate contribute to the presidential library system?

Prior to Nixon’s resignation from office, modern presidents were encouraged, but not required, to donate all the papers from their presidency to their library. Since George Washington, it has been held that the president’s papers were his personal property. Nixon wanted to keep it that way, but the Supreme Court eventually ruled he had to turn over his papers and tapes to the federal government. The 1978 Presidential Records Act established that materials generated through a president’s official duties are federal property and are to be turned over to the Archivist of the United States when a president leaves office.

Are the libraries’ museum exhibits required to tell the unvarnished truth about the presidency?

Let’s just say you probably won’t be seeing any blue Gap dresses displayed at the Clinton museum. While the president and his library foundation do not control the papers or access to them, they do shape the museum exhibits. That’s why in its early years, the LBJ museum’s permanent exhibits barely mentioned a little unpleasantness known as Vietnam. The Web sites of the museums also like to put a rosy face on their presidents. Hoover’s, for example, says he is known around the world as the “Great Humanitarian” not the “Hey, buddy, can you spare a dime” president. Likewise, the Bush library’s presidential biography leaves the impression he just decided to stop being president one day, not mentioning he was defeated by Bill Clinton.

Who has the most popular library?

Johnson. Almost 200,000 people visited it last year. Least popular was Jimmy Carter’s, with 61,000 visitors.

Next questions?  

Explainer thanks Susan Cooper of the National Archives, Skip Rutherford of the Clinton Presidential Foundation, and Mike Parrish of the Lyndon B. Johnson Library and Museum. For more on the presidential library system, see this National Archives site.