November 6, 1997
With the opening of the George Bush Library and Museum at the campus of Texas A&M University, Phil Ponce talks with the historians about presidential libraries.
PHIL PONCE: Former President George Bush was joined at the ceremony dedicating his presidential library by two men who already have one of their own and another who's already planning one. The George Bush Library and Museum is a three-story limestone and granite complex on the campus of Texas A&M University. It is nearly 70,000 square feet big and holds thousands of documents, photos, and mementos from Bush's life and four years as president.
PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: There is one thing left for me to do: apologize to my mother. My mother taught my siblings and me never to be what she called a "braggadocio." We had to go up and look up what that meant. And then we tried to do what she taught. Mother always lectured us in the kinder and gentler way against using the big "I." And I am afraid that some of these exhibits here today might violate her no bragging rule.
PHIL PONCE: His successor gave the new complex high marks.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: This magnificent library will be a place for scholars to try to understand what has happened in some of America's most important years. It's a place for citizens, who want to know right now what went on in the life and career of George Bush. It's also a place from which any person would draw enormous inspiration, a place for the reaffirmation of our faith in America.
PHIL PONCE: The first presidential library was built in 1916 in honor of Rutherford B. Hayes, who served from 1877 to 1881. The Fremont, Ohio, groundbreaking took place more than 20 years after his death. The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Library was dedicated in 1940, five years before he died in 1945. Before Roosevelt most presidents gave their documents to the Library of Congress. Even though they're called libraries they can have little to do with books. There are more than 300 million pages of text, including everything from presidential documents to love letters. There are some 5 million photographs, official portraits, as well as baby pictures. Tourists and scholars have access to thousands of hours of film, video, and audio recordings.
PRESIDENT KENNEDY: Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.
PHIL PONCE: The libraries house more than 300,000 objects. Reagan's includes this model of the Kremlin given him by Russian Leader Mikhail Gorbachev, and a 6,000 pound piece of the Berlin Wall. Harry Truman's has his presidential Lincoln. Kennedy's includes his sailboat. The libraries also chronicle presidential campaigns. At the Kennedy Library in Boston visitors can see the set from the 1960 first ever televised debates. There are replicas of the Oval Office in several libraries, including Johnson's, Roosevelt's, Truman's, and Kennedy's. The Boston version includes Kennedy's famous rocker.
Exhibits on first ladies are also popular. The Reagan Library includes pictures of a young Nancy Reagan and a "just say no" football jersey from her anti-drug campaign. Historians and researchers can spend months--even years--immersed in the presidential records. By law, the National Archives in Washington restricts access to confidential advice, material that's distinctly personal, and national security information. If a former President wants a library, he has to raise the money to build it. Federal taxpayers do not pay construction costs which, in the case of the Bush Library, came to $83 million. But once a library is built it becomes federal property and taxpayers pay for maintenance and administration. Some libraries have offset their costs by charging admission and by sales at gift shops. This one's of the JFK Library. But two libraries, Rutherford Hayes and Richard Nixon's, are private and take no public money. That means they can set their own rules. For example, when the Nixon Library opened, its director first said Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, who helped break the Watergate story, would not be admitted but President Nixon quickly overruled him and said everyone was welcome. Planning is already underway for President Clinton's Library. He reportedly looked at possible Arkansas locations this summer. Former President Bush said at this point the titles that really matter to him have little do with the building behind him.
PRESIDENT BUSH: But now that my political days are over I can honestly say that the three most rewarding titles bestowed upon me are the three that I've got left: a husband, a father, and a granddad. And to that--(applause)--to that I can only add the rich blessings of friendship. I don't know if Lou Gehrig, my great idol, said it first, but I do know that he said it best. Today I feel like the luckiest person in the world. (applause)
PHIL PONCE: For more on presidential libraries we're joined by NewsHour regulars presidential historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss; and journalist and author Haynes Johnson. With them tonight is Dan Holt, director of the Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kansas. And welcome all. Mr. Holt, first of all, what exactly is the purpose of a presidential library?
DAN HOLT, Eisenhower Presidential Library: (College Station, Texas) The initial purpose, of course, was to try to preserve in one place the records from a presidency, with the ability also to bring aboard the cabinet--papers of the cabinet members, the family material, any associates of the presidents, and to fit them in one place that the scholars have collateral material, along with the presidential record, plus the entire time span of these administrations or his life in one location. That was the basic purpose--to protect those records to assure that they don't go or get scattered throughout the country.
PHIL PONCE: Haynes Johnson, to what extent has that purpose been adhered to?
HAYNES JOHNSON, Journalist/Author: Well, they certainly are there. Here we're sitting with Michael Beschloss and Doris Kearns Goodwin out in San Diego, who have done great books, using presidential libraries, so there is a great value of these distinguished colleagues, and people like myself who can go and write about them. That's one thing. But what we saw tonight, just watching the scale of these libraries, their sort of marble mausoleums, sort of celebration of self, what used to be called the imperial presidency, I mean, the $83 million that was raised for the George Bush--I remember myself writing critically about the Lyndon Johnson Library--a 1964 dedication--comparing it to the Great Tower of Pisa or something, and that cost $18.6 million. So the scale of these things rises and rises and rises, and they become almost monuments to the person involved, rather than perhaps something else.
PHIL PONCE: Doris Kearns Goodwin, a monument to the person, is it a temple to LBJ, for example, that Haynes was talking about?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, Presidential Historian: Well, there's no question for Lyndon Johnson. His is the largest and the most colorful, so it does depict his personality. In fact, I remember he always wanted more people to go into his library than were going to the Kennedy Library in Massachusetts, so after a while we felt compelled to sort of walk in and out over and over again with a clicker so he'd feel happy at the end of the day. Nonetheless, they're wonderful places. I mean, to presidential historians they're like food and water because it's true that in the past before these libraries and before some papers were preserved at the Library of Congress John Tyler's papers were destroyed during a burning of Richmond; Zachary Taylor's were carted off during the Civil War; so for the country, not just for the president, to have the papers in one place, it's an extraordinary thing. And then also for the ordinary tourist who goes there, it's the only way that history really comes alive.
I remember being a little kid of seven or eight years old when my parents took me to FDR's house. And I remember seeing on his desk his glasses and then Fallow the dog's leash, and I couldn't believe as a seven-year-old that he wasn't going to come back and get his glasses the next morning and that Fallow wouldn't be there to be taken for a walk. And it was that first indication I had that history could be re-lived, that you could feel it again. You go to these places; there's the home place of the President, as well as the papers for the historians, and it gives you a layered sense of your own past. So I am totally for them.
PHIL PONCE: Michael Beschloss, what's your take on them? Are they places of learning, or do you see them in shrines?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: I'm totally for them too, and if it takes a shrine for presidential libraries to be in good shape, I'm all for it. And, you know, the other thing, Phil, is that the great alternative would be--there's been some suggestion that instead of having presidential libraries, for instance, like the Eisenhower Library that Dan Holt is leading in Abilene, Kansas, where Dwight Eisenhower grew up, and instead you'd have sort of a faceless central presidential archive in Washington, where presidents just stick their papers after they leave the presidency and you can deal with all sorts of presidents in one building. It may sound good at first glance because it may sound as if it's more economical and you can deal with a lot of presidencies in one place in Washington. The problem is one reason that a lot of presidential documents have been collected is people like Dan Holt will know the period of Dwight Eisenhower; he'll get to know some of the people who are still surviving from the administration, and from the family he'll know whom to ask for various documents and materials. He'll specialize in making sure that every single scrap on Dwight Eisenhower is collected. That sure wouldn't happen if you had one faceless archive in Washington.
PHIL PONCE: Dan Holt, to what extent do you think the libraries, as a group, expose a president, warts and all? To what extent are they accurate reflections of the man?
DAN HOLT: We present the factual side of it. We're not there to interpret the presidency. Of course, you do that by what you exhibit in the museum from time to time, and what records you're able to save, so there is some interpretation. But I want to interject one thing about the cost of the Bush. That's the entire complex. That's not just the presidential library. That is the foundation buildings, and that's an important new aspect of the presidential library system today; that these buildings are restricted in size; they have a very definite format now on space, plus they have to come with a trust fund intact, based on a formula that helps in the cost and maintenance of those buildings.
And I don't recall exactly what the National Archives presidential library at the Bush cost, but the $83 million is for the two other buildings that are run by the foundation and Texas A&M. Secondly, it's very important to remember that having worked in acquisitions in this way now for 35 years that when you acquire the papers of a leading individual his friends want their papers to be with him. If you don't put those papers in a central location that can provide the care to bring other people's collections in, they're going to be scattered all over the country, and believe me, I've seen this happen, but I think of us who direct and don't look at them as memorials at all, we look at them as study places and history centers, and we try to direct them that way, if the public perceives them that way, I have no problem with that. And I think George Bush is right. I think that the president, it certainly is an ego trip for them at that point. But, on the other hand, you don't become a president without a lot of ego.
PHIL PONCE: Haynes--
DAN HOLT: The same way Colin Powell didn't get five stars--or four stars without an ego or Dwight Eisenhower or--
HAYNES JOHNSON: Well, Bush was great today about that, the big "I."
PHIL PONCE: How about it, though, does every presidency warrant a library? I mean, there--there's a succession of single-term presidents.
HAYNES JOHNSON: Well, you had today on that platform, you had four living--three living former presidents and the president, and you had all the other--Mrs. Lyndon Johnson--you had the children of Kennedy and the grandchildren of Dwight Eisenhower and Julie Nixon. So you have six, seven administrations lined up. Every president is entitled to have those papers somewhere. How you do them and the size and scale is something else.
PHIL PONCE: Doris, do you think every presidency deserves a monument on the scale of the Bush Library? Is every presidency that significant?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, surely once you become president the only audience left really is history so there's no constituents to persuade anymore. So each president is going to want something. It may become a problem if each one wants a bigger and bigger one than the one who went before. We'll have these huge mausoleums. But I think even though the presidential will may be to try and reflect his own presidency in the best possible way, as Dan said, the people who run these libraries are professional people, so that even at Nixon's Library there is an exhibit on Watergate. At LBJ's there's an exhibit on Vietnam. Surely they can shape it like Carter has a lot on human rights because that's what he cared about. Hoover's Library has a lot about his relief activities before he became president since that's what he was proudest of. But people know that the president has some will in shaping it, or their friends and colleagues do. But still, nonetheless, it's history is the audience, and each president is going to want one.
PHIL PONCE: Michael--
DAN HOLT: Actually, the older libraries are more mature, I think is appropriate for like Eisenhower and Truman--we had a different situation than the libraries do today. And today they look like they're huge monuments, but I say again they are now restricted under the Presidential Libraries Act and how large those buildings can be. And they're built to house the collections. And you have to do a formula to figure out how much space you have to house them. We have pictures of Kay Somersby out, for instance, in a museum. We don't try to cover up anything.
PHIL PONCE: Kay Somersby being the person with whom Eisenhower is alleged to have had a repair--
DAN HOLT: Yes, supposedly.
PHIL PONCE: --had an affair--excuse me. Michael, are you troubled at all by the--by the fact that presidents have to raise the money themselves for their libraries, is that the least bit unseemly in your opinion?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think it's a little bit unseemly but I think it's better than the taxpayers having to foot the bill of an $80 million cost of something like the Bush Library, as worthy as it may be, but that is an awful lot of money to raise, and ironically enough it does have some historical resonance because you think of a presidential candidate in these times having to raise a huge amount of money to run for president, having to do it again to run again for president the second time. And then he isn't finished when he gets out of the presidency has to do it once more. And when you're dealing with amounts like this, it sometimes causes presidents to have to really go and do things that they really would not prefer to do, especially once they're out of the White House.
DAN HOLT: The library directors aren't finished either when they opened. It's one of the best examples of the public/private relationship in the federal government because, you know, these buildings are totally built and furnished by the foundations that operate them. But we received no appropriated funds for programs or exhibits. And most people don't realize that, and those foundations continue to help fund those libraries on important programs and exhibits that come in and change. And all that is done with private money as well. So it's a great deal of money the federal government spends for the operating expenses, but there's also a continuing private relationship here.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Haynes, you wanted to say something?
HAYNES JOHNSON: Well, you know what's interesting about this, the money obviously--we come off a year of money and politics and the scale of memorializing itself increases too, but there's something that's a paradox here. Americans used to want simplicity, or so we said. I mean, I remember when the White House--I went back to look up a quote--when Jefferson went in, he was criticized because he had bought some French wine, and this small really place, and he was criticized--the place was so large it was big enough for two emperors, the one Pope and the Grand Lama. Think about that scale, compared to today. That's all I'm saying.
DAN HOLT: Maybe we should have more presidents from Kansas. The entire Eisenhower complex, as it sits right now, with all five buildings and twenty-two acres, cost $7 million. It's going to cost us $3 million to renovate one gallery. So there is a price increase here, but maybe we could be build ‘em cheaper in the plains.
PHIL PONCE: Is it fair to say that presidents see these libraries--and I think Doris alluded to it earlier--as a way of sort of shaping their legacy? Doris.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Oh, I think there's probably no question--especially the presidents who are still alive when the library is being built--you know, they want to emphasize what parts of their presidency they're most proud of, and what interests they had. I mean, Roosevelt has his naval prints and his stamps and his collections. He was a collector forever. But I think over time the public need of the professional librarians makes them have to put in the things that they're not so proud of, and they become professional places. There's something so moving, though, about seeing all these ex-presidents together, and that's what these libraries do. It's one of the few occasions where we see them altogether. Or sometimes they have conferences. Indeed, the Eisenhower Library or the Hoover Library had a conference of ex-presidents, which was fantastic, where they talked about the experience of being ex-presidents, and there was this wonderful moment when it was said that Eisenhower, when he first came back, had never heard a dial tone before because he had had phones made for him for such a long period of time, he listened when he picked up the phone when he got home, and he said, "What's this buzz on here," and you just wouldn't get that without these people coming together like this.
PHIL PONCE: Michael.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Something else, very important today, George Bush--and this has been unusual--he has basically told the people in his library open every single document from my presidency as much and as quickly as possible. That has not been true of all presidents and all libraries. I think it's a terrific example for others in the future.
PHIL PONCE: I'm afraid we're going to have to leave it there for now.
HAYNES JOHNSON: And that's the great test, for openers, right?
PHIL PONCE: Thanks to all.
DAN HOLT: Eisenhowers--all of them come out--
JAMES JONES: Thank you, Phil.