Enough! No more presidential shrines

Like a virulent virus, the scope and cost of shrines to ex-presidents keeps growing.

The Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum, dedicated in 1957, cost $1.7 million.

The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, dedicated in 1979, cost $20.8 million.

The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Center for Public Affairs, dedicated in 1991, cost $60 million.

The William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum, dedicated in 2004, cost $165 million.

Next up — the already controversial Barack Obama Presidential Center on a 20-acres site in Chicago. First expected to break ground in late 2018, and now projected to break ground in 2021, it was originally projected to cost $500 million. Now it will likely cost more.

Current design of the Obama Presidential Center Museum

The private Obama Foundation, not the government, will own and operate the center. The principal feature is expected to be a 235-foot-tall fortresslike museum tower with a likely granite facade, which will stand like one of the “two vast and trunkless legs of stone” standing in the desert in Shelley’s poem, Ozymandias. It’s reminiscent of the still-preserved medieval monolithic rock-hewn churches in the 13th century “New Jerusalem” in the heart of modern-day Ethiopia.

A rock-hewn church in Lalibela, a small town cradled in the mountains of northern Ethiopia. Commissioned by King Gebre Mesqel Lalibela in the 13th century

“We once held the office of president, as well as its occupant, in high regard,” Anthony Clark wrote in The Last Campaign: How Presidents Rewrite History, Run for Posterity, and Enshrine Their Legacies  “As we have lowered our opinions of both, presidential libraries, consequently, have grown larger and more powerful—and, not incidentally, less truthful.”

Adding insult to injury, Obama’s creation isn’t even going to have a presidential library. Artifacts and records from Obama’s two terms in the White House are being digitalized and organized by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and will be stored in existing NARA facilities. The only library planned for the site is a new branch of the Chicago Public Library in the museum tower.

This is all getting completely out of hand.

Though Congress approved the acceptance of the first presidential library, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum at Hyde Park in New York, in 1939, Congress didn’t formally authorize the Presidential Library System until 1955 with the passage of the Presidential Libraries Act. Then everything went gangbusters and the push for even more presidential shrines continues.

The $900 billion pandemic bill just sent to the president, for example, authorizes 93 acres of federal lands to be used for the construction of a Teddy Roosevelt Presidential Library in North Dakota more than 100 years after his death. The Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library Foundation recently announced it had $100 million in commitments, successfully unlocking a $50 million endowment from the state of North Dakota, even though major digitized collections of Roosevelt’s papers already exist at the Library of Congress and Harvard University .[1] 

Maybe, just maybe, presidential libraries were once justified when they actually contained physical papers available to researchers, but over time the idea morphed into the construction of costly tourist-traps. As Politico has put it, “Presidential libraries are perfect examples of just how far presidents will go to control their own legacies. Since the first one was created in 1941, what were intended to be serious research centers have grown into flashy, partisan temples touting huckster history.”

And now, with the records of the Obama administration being digitized, there’s even less reason to build a complex that will be little more than a testament to egotism in architecture.

When will it end? Are we destined to see yet another shrine, a freakish billion-dollar Trump monolith and theme park, arising near Palm Beach?

The Trump Presidential Monument and Theme Park?

[1] The papers of Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), public official, author, decorated veteran of the Spanish-American War, governor of New York, and president of the United States (1901-1909), have already been digitized. The collection consists of approximately 276,000 documents (roughly 461,000 images), most of which were digitized from 485 reels of previously reproduced microfilm. Held in the Library of Congress Manuscript Division, these papers constitute the largest collection of original Roosevelt documents in the world. There is also The Theodore Roosevelt Collection, housed in Harvard’s Houghton and Widener libraries. The collection started as a research library opened in New York City by the Roosevelt Memorial Association in 1923. It was presented by that organization (known since 1953 as the Theodore Roosevelt Association) to Harvard University, Roosevelt’s alma mater, in 1943.

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