End presidential libraries

Right now, rangers are readying Acadia National Park for the summer arrival of 2.4 million visitors. But there is not enough staff — Acadia, like all national parks, has suffered from budget cuts because of sequestrations, shut-downs and all the rest. And the facilities themselves are in poor shape. The National Park Service said that Acadia has $57.6 million in deferred maintenance needs for trails, bridges, roads and the like. The story can be repeated for all of the other important national parks across the country — Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Yosemite; pick your favorite.

Meanwhile, Barack Obama is in the process of setting up yet another presidential library, in Chicago, and intends to raise $1 billion in private funds to build it.

While the Obama library has said they’ll decline funding from the National Archives, this will be the 14th such edifice, all developed since the Presidential Libraries Act was enacted in 1955. In 2016, five of the libraries had a total number of visitors below 100,000. Yet for this, the taxpayers are paying roughly $66 million per year — nearly the annual budget for Acadia.

Even more important than the budgetary question is the philosophical question: Does each president need his own library? Scholar Richard J. Cox says no.

In “America’s Pyramid: Presidents and Their Libraries,” he writes, “We don’t need ‘a library for each president, each armed with its own archivists and museum curators and scattered about the country.’ ” He goes on to say, “Establishing a different kind of Presidential Archives will end the ‘cult of personality’ that seems to be in place with the current Presidential Library system.”

Multiple libraries are also undemocratic because, as professor Jonathan Zimmerman wrote in The Washington Post, “they allow our presidents – not the people who elected them, to define their legacies.”

Unfortunately, many of the private donations to build recent presidential libraries are from foreign governments, and from donors who have benefited from the president’s time in office. They, not the people, control their content.

The George H.W. Bush Presidential Library Foundation raised $500 million primarily from donations from foreign governments, including Saudi Arabia and Kuwait and from the father of a man he had recently paroled.

Bill Clinton’s presidential library was funded in great part by foreign grants and the ex-wife of a person to whom he had issued an 11th-hour pardon.

Don’t look for objective treatment of Watergate at the Nixon Library or of impeachment at the Clinton Library.

Multiple libraries are terribly wasteful, costing taxpayers millions of dollars per year to operate. Do we need three presidential libraries in Texas, two in California and potentially two in New York?

In the last 60 years, the cost of building and maintaining presidential libraries has increased in ways that Presidents Roosevelt and Truman, who established the first libraries, never imagined.

Lyndon Johnson’s library cost 10 times as much as Truman’s library; Ronald Reagan’s was triple the cost of Johnson’s library.

George H.W. Bush doubled the Reagan budget, and Bill Clinton then doubled Bush.

And would President Trump convert Trump Tower into a museum to be subsidized by taxpayers? Why not establish a Presidential Center for Research in Washington for all Americans to enjoy?

Thankfully this practice is relatively recent. If George Washington had established the precedent, by now we’d have 41 such libraries dotting the countryside, dedicated to such luminaries as James Buchanan and Millard Fillmore, and costing close to a half billion dollars a year.

We should end this mistaken experiment; otherwise, a century from now there will be dozens more libraries, looking to future citizens like lost pyramids to forgotten pharaohs.

This is an issue on which our congressional delegation should be able to reach bipartisan agreement. At a time when we are dealing with historical deficits and government spending is under increased scrutiny, we should end this taxpayer subsidy. End the cult of imperial presidents. End the unseemly fundraising. End the system of presidential libraries.

Severin M. Beliveau is a lawyer in Portland.

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