Barack Obama’s Presidential Library Is Making a Mockery of Transparency

tags: Barack Obama, presidential libraries, archives, historical preservation

Anthony Clark is a former speechwriter, committee professional staffer, and legislative director in the U.S. House of Representatives. He is the author of The Last Campaign: How Presidents Rewrite History, Run for Posterity & Enshrine Their Legacies.

At a public ceremony on July 24, 1939, Franklin Roosevelt pretended to deed a portion of his estate in Hyde Park, New York, to the United States government. FDR had to pretend because his mother, Sara Roosevelt, who held the land, didn’t agree with her son’s plan to build his presidential library there, and slipped off to Europe without signing the deed. FDR hurried a copy to her in France, which her son finally convinced her to sign, although with misgivings.

Eight decades later, we’re still arguing over the where, and the what, of presidential libraries. The latest dispute is over Barack and Michelle Obama’s decision not to build a traditional presidential library—which brings a few benefits, and many downsides, for the American public.

Traditionally, a president would build a library-museum and turn it over to the federal government to operate. For many years, that worked: the government received a free building, scholars had quick access to opened records, and former presidents and their boosters enjoyed the acclaim their self-written biographical exhibits provided.

That all changed during the '70s when, with costs ballooning and Richard Nixon threatening to destroy key presidential materials, Congress tried to seize the disgraced president’s records and tapes and change the laws to make future records subject to the Freedom of Information Act. It continued into the '80s when lawmakers worked to rein in cost of these enormous structures by limiting their size and requiring operation and maintenance endowments.

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