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Scandalocracy | The Nation

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Scandalocracy

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Public scandals are America's favorite parlor sport. Learning about the flaws and misdeeds of the rich and famous seems to satisfy our egalitarian yearnings. For all our recognition that competition produces distinctions among individuals, we remain attached to the belief that no one is--or should be--better than anyone else. Reflecting the national unease with celebrities and celebrity, Ralph Waldo Emerson declared, "Every hero becomes a bore at last."

About the Author

Robert Dallek
Robert Dallek, a professor of history at Boston University, is writing a biography of John F. Kennedy.

Also by the Author

Allegations that President Clinton pardoned Marc Rich partly in return for donations to his presidential library have raised questions about the value of such institutions and the federal appropriations that support them. In raising funds for his library from friends and supporters, Clinton followed a tradition established by Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt and continued by all subsequent Presidents. Private contributors have funded the ten presidential libraries and museums, which with the exception of the Nixon Library were then given to the government. Nixon's library will also become a ward of the National Archives once his papers and tapes are processed and deposited there.

The Clinton flap has exposed all these presidential repositories to public fire. "Why do these white elephants exist at all?" Eric Gibson asked in the Wall Street Journal. Presidential libraries, Gibson complains, have lost touch with the "tasteful beginnings" evident at the FDR site. "Nowadays they look like the fruit of an unholy alliance between the Smithsonian and Graceland--repositories doubling as shrines to a personality cult." FDR's Hyde Park facility "plays up the Hundred Days and plays down the packing of the Supreme Court," Gibson says. "JFK's library celebrates the Cuban Missile Crisis while having strangely little to say about the Bay of Pigs invasion or the Diem assassination."

Gibson's complaint is not without merit. The museum tied to each of the libraries is a forum for celebrating the President's life and Administration. These museums do put their best foot forward, but a country needs people it can look up to. And each of the ten Presidents memorialized in their museums had some--and in FDR's case, considerable--virtues worth remembering.

Gibson believes we would be better off if we housed presidential papers at the National Archives. But if the tens of millions of papers and the thousands of hours of tapes and oral histories in the presidential libraries went into the archives, it would limit the availability of these records to biographers and historians and impoverish the public's understanding of twentieth-century US history and the institution of the presidency. The libraries do a superb job of organizing these vast collections and making them available in a timely fashion to anyone with a legitimate research interest.

Questions about whether Clinton exchanged donations to his library for pardons can serve at least one useful purpose. Let's avoid future allegations of this kind by providing federal funds to build and administer all future presidential libraries. A nation with a $1.96 trillion national budget can afford to be generous in support of historical studies.

It's not as if the country is so well informed about its past that we can take historical knowledge for granted. A survey in the New York Times of 556 seniors at fifty-five leading colleges and universities revealed that these young people knew more about Beavis and Butt-Head than about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Where 99 percent of those surveyed could identify the TV cartoon characters, 40 percent could not correctly name the fifty-year period in which the Civil War occurred. Only one student in the survey answered all of the thirty-four high-school-level questions correctly; the average score was a troubling 53 percent.

Lawmakers, who will surely object to providing money for presidential libraries, especially for an opposing party's President, would do well to reflect on John Dos Passos' assertion, "In times of change and danger, when there is a quicksand of fear under men's reasoning, a sense of continuity with generations gone before can stretch like a lifeline across the scary present."

Full federal funding for presidential libraries should bring with it new rules of control over papers and artifacts. All the libraries currently include privately donated materials with access restrictions. Two examples at the JFK Library are cases in point: Recently donated Joseph P. Kennedy papers are made available only to applicants approved by a screening committee; a 500-page Jacqueline Kennedy oral history is closed until after the death of both of her children [see David Corn and Gus Russo, page 15]. Limitations on access imposed by private parties should become obsolete. Under federal national security and privacy rules, papers are already carefully reviewed before being made available. Special access should become an anachronism. Like the country's history, a taxpayer-supported institution is the property of all its people. Access to presidential materials should be as wide as possible.

Bob Woodward's Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate, a recounting of all the major post-Watergate scandals, will speak to the enduring public interest in news of our political malignancies and could well fly to the top of the bestseller charts. But then again, maybe not. At times, the country wearies of hearing about demoralizing political misdeeds and goes in search of new heroes who appeal to our better angels. Woodward's book sales will be one small bit of evidence for future cultural historians trying to decipher the national mood at the end of the twentieth century.

If Shadow is a potential cultural artifact, how does it rank as a work of history, especially presidential history? As his reporting in Watergate demonstrated twenty-five years ago, Woodward is a highly effective investigative journalist. These skills are on full display in Shadow. His recounting of every major political controversy from Gerald Ford's pardon of Nixon through the Bert Lance and Hamilton Jordan flaps under Carter to the Iran/contra scandal under Reagan and Bush will be useful reading for any historian assessing the Ford, Carter, Reagan and Bush presidencies.

Shadow, however, is most interesting as a reconstruction of the many scandals that have troubled the Clinton Administration. More than half the book is devoted to the Clinton presidency. Although Clinton, understandably, refused to be interviewed for the book, Woodward has relied on numerous "knowledgeable sources" to piece together the complicated allegations and investigations that have consumed so much attention during Clinton's seven years in office. As with his earlier books, questions can be raised about the authenticity of these sources. Unattributed quotes cannot and should not be taken at face value; verifiable endnotes are as essential in contemporary works of history as in later volumes of scholarship.

Despite this, however, much of what Woodward says about the Clintons rings true. Bill Clinton's explosive anger and petulance in response to his many self-inflicted travails raise questions about the man's judgment and trustworthiness. The portrait of Hillary Clinton is no more reassuring. Her paranoid style, in Woodward's words, will surely be a topic of discussion in her expected run for a New York Senate seat. In time, of course, other books and articles will challenge and undoubtedly revise at least some of what Woodward describes. But his depiction of the first couple will be part of the first draft of Clinton's presidential history.

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