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Robert Dallek | The Nation

Robert Dallek

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Robert Dallek

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

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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.

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.