Why Aren’t Presidential Libraries Better?

See LBJ in a whole new way

On a recent weeklong trip to Texas to visit family friends, I visited the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library and Museum in Austin, Texas. It’s a strikingly ugly and dull building on first impression—beige and overbearing and bland. A life-sized faux bronze statue of Johnson greets you at the door, imposing at 6’4”.

There’s, obviously, lots of archival and historical information about Johnson in the library. A decades-spanning mural covers several walls detailing the major events in Johnson’s life. There are several floors of official archives (45 million of them), presumably about or by Johnson, that are only accessible through a Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, request.

Most interesting was how much of the library was dedicated to things besides Johnson. A current exhibit, titled “Sixty From the ‘60s,” features sixty famous figures from the 1960s, from Charles Schulz to Katharine Graham to Aretha Franklin. The only connection the exhibit has to Johnson is that he was president during most of the ‘60s, which is tangential at best. An upcoming exhibit, “Cornerstones of Civil Rights,” is more closely related to Johnson, who signed the Voting Rights Act into law, but the exhibit is split between Johnson and Abraham Lincoln.

The library also seems unsure about what age group it’s targeting. There were plenty of children there during my visit, but there are also fairly sophisticated exhibits about civil rights featuring former activist and current Congressman John Lewis talking about segregation in the Deep South, which is not necessarily what most people would consider family-friendly (though they should). There’s a hokey animatronic LBJ telling bad jokes to show off Johnson’s sense of humor (apparently it used to be a cowboy, or something), which is very clearly targeted at kids.

All of which is to say, what purpose does this library serve? Who is it for? There are hundreds of libraries on American culture and history throughout the United States, so why does the LBJ Presidential Library focus so heavily on things that are not directly related to Johnson? I haven’t been to any other presidential libraries, but briefly browsing their sites I note a book talk with the author of The True Mary Todd Lincoln at the Herbert Hoover Library in West Branch, Iowa; a showing of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s collection of over 200 pins at the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence, Missouri; and a now-closed exhibit celebrating designer Oscar de la Renta at the William J. Clinton Library in Little Rock, Arkansas. None of these exhibits are relevant to the president whose library they’re appearing at (especially the de la Renta one). And it’s not as if the presidencies of Johnson, Hoover, Truman, and Clinton were empty and dull—there’s plenty of material from all of them to fill several libraries and museums.

Former House staffer Anthony Clark wrote a brutal takedown of presidential libraries last year in which he noted that the National Archives entirely funds all twelve presidential libraries, which amounts to just under $100 million per year of taxpayer money. I don’t agree with Clark’s pessimism—I ultimately found the LBJ library to be fun and interesting, warts and all—but he does raise an interesting point: why aren’t these libraries better? Or rather, more relevant? Taxpayers pay enough for them, both in admission fees and their taxes. I went to the LBJ library to learn about his life and presidency, not who William F. Buckley was. I can only assume that some tourist in Little Rock (a stretch, I know) who goes to visit the Clinton library isn’t particularly interested in Oscar de la Renta’s Oscar night gowns, unless they have a fairly broad range of interests.

Clark does bring up a more valid point: that these libraries, regardless of the quality of the public exhibits, also house millions of important historical documents. These can only be accessed by journalists and historians via FOIAs, and the libraries are notoriously slow at responding to those. The Reagan, H.W. Bush, and Clinton libraries all have FOIA request backlogs of multiple years. Another thing: the president of whichever library is FOIA’d can deny the request until January 2021. These documents are in the public interest (anything in the Reagan library on Iran-Contra is certainly in the public interest), and should be easily accessible to the public.

The first presidential library was Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s in Hyde Park, New York, which opened in 1939. Roosevelt donated thousands of his personal and presidential papers to the United States, as well as part of his estate in Hyde Park. In 1955, after Truman had opened his library in Missouri, Congress passed the Presidential Libraries Act, which established that libraries would be privately built, but federally funded. In 1978, the Presidential Records Act ensured that, in the National Archives’ words, “the Presidential records that document the constitutional, statutory, and ceremonial duties of the President are the property of the United States Government. After the President leaves office, the Archivist of the United States assumes custody of the records.”

A 2011 New York Times article detailed a rift between presidential library designs—the Nixon library, in Yorba Linda, California, is understandably hard on Nixon, mainly for Watergate, while the Reagan library, in nearby Simi Valley, is an exercise in hero worship. The LBJ library falls in between those two, but closer to Reagan. It details his many accomplishments (creating the Corporation for National Broadcasting, the parent company of NPR and PBS, signing the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, etc.), but fails to address the claims of Johnson’s racism. The Vietnam War is obviously brought up, but Johnson is always portrayed as just and fair, which many would disagree with. In Clark’s words, “instead of fairly portraying a president’s life and years in office, the newer libraries have become legacy-polishing temples that all but ignore controversy or criticism.”

I left the library with almost no impression of Johnson. I knew a little about him before I went in, and knew just about the same after I left. I learned a couple anecdotes I didn’t know before (he created the National Parks Service! Learn something new every day), but the library does a terrible job of conveying Johnson the man, rather than just his achievements. I enjoyed my hour or two there, but I just wanted more from it. If I’m going to see a jokey exhibit of a puppet telling jokes, I also need something more substantial about the former president. Were I in charge of any kind of presidential library (heaven forbid), I’d invite critical historians and journalists to design an opposition exhibit, just to offset the hero worship that abounds in these libraries.

The Barack Obama Foundation announced last month that it was beginning the search for potential cities to house the Obama library. The initial contenders seem to be Honolulu (which got a four-year headstart), Chicago (a bill currently in the Illinois House would set aside $100 million for the project), and New York City (Chicago is mad about this one). Wherever it is, the bar set by previous libraries shouldn’t be too hard to beat.

  • Mary Thompson

    It sounds like some of these libraries need to look at the relatively new library of Lincoln in Springfield, Illinois, which is interactive and “hands on.” One of the best!

  • Raphael

    Maybe the quality of the libraries reflects the quality of American democracy. It’s not like one person per decade can reflect much of the complexity and diversity of American political life. Most of the achievements of the ’60s aren’t directly attributable to LBJ, and the hero worship directed at Reagan (in some quarters) is a clear indication of the widening gulf between America’s democratic rhetoric and the reality of our political practice. Maybe we are getting the architecture we deserve.

  • Holly

    I used to work at the LBJ, and want to clarify something: the museum exhibits are funded by the (private) LBJ foundation, not the federal government. The library and archival materials fall under NARA.

  • ravi

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