The Universities of Hawaii and Chicago are already trying to lay claim to President Barack Obama‘s presidential library. Is this simple academic self-interest or the manifestation of larger cultural trends? Both.
At first glimpse it appears these schools, despite warnings, are predicting Obama will be a one-term President, and therefore his library will be up for debate sooner rather than later.
Robert Perkinson, the University of Hawaii American Studies professor who’s directing that school’s bid, admits their attempts, which began last April, are a bit premature.
“This is something that presidents typically think about toward the end of their presidency, and Obama hopefully is still toward the beginning of his presidency,” he said from Obama’s home state. “So it’s not surprising that (Obama) doesn’t want to think about it. But those of us who are interested in bidding, we have to think about it a lot earlier than he does.”
And indeed the White House wants nothing to do with this conversation, offering only a “no comment.”
Nor does the University of Chicago, located in the city where Obama got his political start, want to discuss their own endeavor. “It is premature to discuss a presidential library,” said a spokesman. They may not want to talk about it, but expressed interest last year, as well, and these two schools will no doubt be joined by others, probably Columbia or Harvard, where Obama attended undergrad and law school, respectively.
This interest may spring from a few sources: first, Barack Obama’s our first black president, and any institution, as well as their neighbors, who can lay claim to his presidential records guarantees a financial windfall: Bill Clinton‘s library in Little Rock, Arkansas, has generated an estimated $1.5 billion since opening in 2005, and receives most of the credit for helping gentrify a rundown area in Clinton’s former city.
Hawaii and Chicago’s bids, however, may not simply be about money or prestige. It may all be about remembrance, and how to control it.
Believe it or not, but there was once a time when presidential libraries were unheard of: all the President’s papers, notes and random doodles were considered his property and either distributed to associates or destroyed all together.
It was Franklin Roosevelt — that socialist — who started the trend in 1939, when he donated all of his papers to the government. Harry Truman followed suit, and in 1955 Congress officially established a library system dedicated to our nation’s top dogs. It wasn’t until 1978, however, that Congress declared the Commander-in-Chief’s papers property of the States and libraries became part-and-parcel of the presidential process.
In this age of fast-paced digital existence and online cataloguing, our culture has developed a taste for instant nostalgia. What’s one-second old is just that: old, and we try with all our might to remember the “good old days. And that goes for political leaders, as well.
Even before this midterm “shellacking,” Americans foresaw their lives a decade from now, when they would recall, either with pride or revulsion, Obama’s historic election. We lived through history and we knew it, a fact that only hastened our shared yearning to preserve a moment in time.
That desire may be collective, but it doesn’t overcome humanity’s habit of laying a stake in history, and these two schools’ efforts to win Obama’s records shows that history, no matter how United, will always be parceled out to whomever can come out on top.