Trump’s Presidential Library Will Be A Shrine To His EgoRoundup
tags: presidential libraries, Donald Trump
Paul Musgrave is an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Follow
President Trump has reportedly spent little time thinking about his post-presidential life. ("You can't broach it with him," an anonymous friend told the New Yorker in recent days. "He'd be furious at the suggestion that he could lose.") But he will surely avail himself of the same consolation prize his predecessors did: a presidential library. What will it look like?
The federal presidential library system traces its origins to Franklin Roosevelt's 1941 establishment of a library to make his records more accessible in the interests of transparency. But lack of funding and weak oversight by the National Archives and Records Administration mean that, without significant changes in the law, Trump will have a perfect pedestal where he can erect a shrine to himself. His records won't be available in full until after he dies; he'll be able to raise millions to award sinecures to his aides as they tout his supposed successes at "making America great again"; there is no mandate to pursue historical accuracy; he can whitewash his legacy. This will be the headquarters for Trump's permanent post-presidential campaign.
And while Trump's presidency was distinguished by constant departures from norms, the library is one place where all presidents are consistent. Following a trail blazed most successfully by Richard Nixon, turning his presidential library into an image-making prop will be among the most normal things Trump ever does.
For most of American history, presidents' official papers were considered to be their private property. When they left office, they took their records with them. This practice ran obvious risks. Some records succumbed to neglect. George Washington's nephew Bushrod regretted that the president's papers had been "excessively mutilated by Rats." Others met more dramatic fates, as when many of the papers of Southern presidents John Tyler and Zachary Taylor were destroyed when their family homes were looted by Union troops during the Civil War. And still others were disposed of by image-minded presidents who worried that history would be unkind to them, as with the papers of Chester Arthur and Calvin Coolidge .
But [Franklin] Roosevelt recognized that historians could not reach useful judgments about the past with only partial access to it. He created the first modern presidential library by giving the federal government his papers — along with his books, his model ship collection and a complex built with $400,000 ($7.2 million today) in private donations. The move recast expectations that later presidents would treat their records as a part of their civic responsibility, the law professor Jonathan Turley has argued . Future presidents followed FDR's example by raising funds to build libraries and deeding their papers to the National Archives, a framework codified in the Presidential Libraries Act of 1955. And because presidents could, if they chose, attach conditions on when some materials would be released, they retained a measure of control over their image. The Kennedy family, for instance, reportedly slowed access to the president's taped conversations.
This cozy arrangement was never quite as altruistic as advertised. But it set expectations that lasted until Nixon undermined confidence that presidents could be entrusted with their materials. After resigning to avoid impeachment in the Watergate scandal, Nixon demanded custody of his presidential records — including the infamous Oval Office tapes, many hundreds of hours of which had not yet been made public and which Nixon could have destroyed at will. After all, they belonged to him.
In response, Congress passed a tough law , the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act, in 1974; it applied only to Nixon and seized control of his papers. Congress later codified the new understanding in the Presidential Records Act (PRA), which applied to presidents from Ronald Reagan onward and formalized the concept of presidential libraries as repositories of records that belonged to the public.
But in doing so, Congress unintentionally legitimized all the precedents that Nixon hadn't broken. And over time, those precedents would render FDR's vision all but forgotten, ripe for exploitation by someone like Trump who has no use for norms.