The planned Obama presidential library in Chicago, dubbed “Obamaland,” is an extravagant waste of taxpayer dollars, in a city that is already at the financial breaking point. And do W’s signed baseballs or Walt Disney memorabilia belong in presidential libraries? When even Bill Clinton thinks they’re a joke, what are we taxpayers actually paying for—and why?
By Philip Giraldi
America’s presidential libraries are, generally speaking, monuments to vanity and political mendacity, but the forthcoming Obama Presidential Center outdoes them all. It does not even call itself a library, as it will contain no books or documents to enable researchers to study what happened and why in the White House between 2004 and 2012. All the carefully selected and screened material in the center will be digitized and on computer while the original source material will be retained by the National Archives in Washington. At best, the center will be a curiosity, dear to fans of the former president but attracting few others.
The lack of seriousness of the presidential libraries was evident at the most recent dedication ceremony, that of George W. Bush at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, where Bill Clinton even joked about the library’s displays, which included W’s collection of signed baseballs, as being the “latest, grandest example of former presidents to rewrite history.” Another critic described the library experience as “legacy polishing.”
There should be some concern over how “presidential libraries” are often colocated at major universities, because it creates a perhaps unhappy matrix where politics, personal commemoration, and archival information that is presumed to be both reliable and comprehensive have to coexist.
There are 13 presidential libraries, many including museums and supporting foundations, all of which are now operated by the National Archive and Records Administration (NARA) at a cost of $100 million per year, meaning that essentially partisan political entities are being taxpayer funded. Most of the libraries actually attract few visitors, leading them to include book signings and unrelated exhibits. Even the most popular Reagan library recently featured a display of Walt Disney treasures.
The architect’s plan for Obama’s bid to greatness will center on an oddly shaped tower rising in a prime location of 20 acres along Chicago’s Lake Michigan shorefront. The city of Chicago is providing the land while construction costs for the building will be privately raised. Groundbreaking is in 2019 and it is expected to open in 2021. Though it is not part of the nearby University of Chicago, it does have “collaborative” status with the “host” institution. The university is under fire because it reportedly paid something like a secret bribe to the center’s organizers to obtain approval for the Chicago location. University President Robert Zimmer is already promoting the center as a major international attraction for scholars and the general public alike, adding that it will serve as a “catalyst for economic and cultural opportunities as well as community programing,” whatever that is supposed to mean.
The center will include a reading room, museum, exhibit rooms, a test kitchen, a recording studio, a rooftop community garden, a sledding hill, a playground, and office space for the Barack Obama Foundation. It doesn’t sound much like a real library, but that is because it is in fact more envisioned as something like a community outreach program for the black communities running to the south and west of the site. The Chairman of the Obama Foundation describes the development as a “dynamic, vibrant forum for civic participation, education, action and progress.” It is already being dubbed in the Chicago media as “Obamaland.”
Obama, like his predecessors George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, is not very easy to define, meaning that an assessment of his time in office will inevitably take on the coloration of whoever is structuring the narrative and to what end—which means that it will likely leave out more than it includes, and therein lies the dilemma.
Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize will no doubt be prominently on display, but there will be no critical documents to explain the arguments made for assassination by drone. Position papers and meeting notes would be invaluable in trying to assess what occurred 10 years ago, but those documents will not be in the library archive, as they potentially disrupt the narrative and are considered both too recent and too sensitive for public consumption.
Obama should perhaps get top marks for his opening to Cuba and his willingness to negotiate with Iran, but there ought to be plenty of room for a serious discussion over the questionable mandate referred to as Obamacare as well as regarding the two wars in Libya and Syria motivated by “regime change,” initiated by the White House against nations with which the U.S. was not at war.
And then there are the innocent victims of the U.S. foreign policy that has been a hallmark of both the Bush and Obama years, an estimated 3-4 million Muslims who have perished in the so-called “War on Terror,” to include the more than 3,000 civilians who were killed under Obama by drones. And there needs to be some explanation for the treatment of whistleblowers who have attempted to expose criminal and unconstitutional activity only to be silenced through imprisonment, as well as for the “renditioned” and tortured foreigners seeking redress in U.S. courts who were blocked through repeated invocation of the State Secrets Privilege.And there is much more downside than that.
The land the library will be built on will be taken from Jackson Park, one of Chicago’s finest and a National Historic Register site, which is regarded in itself as a “dangerous precedent.” It is being slammed in the Chicago media as an “ugly waste of taxpayer resources” due to the $100 million plus of “renovations” and “improvements” to surrounding roads and the lakefront, which will have to be paid for by the city, which has no money to spare, and the state of Illinois, which is broke. The Center’s much criticized “soft-boiled egg” central tower will overwhelm surrounding buildings. Two hundred professors from the University of Chicago have signed a letter denouncing the design, the location, and the cost to the taxpayer.
All recent presidential libraries are flamboyant wastes of taxpayer money. The Obama Center is even worse, an ego trip that will diminish the part of Chicago where it will be placed. It is time to reconsider both it and its location before ground is broken next year.
Philip Giraldi is a former CIA counter-terrorism specialist and military intelligence officer and a columnist and television commentator. He is also the executive director of the Council for the National Interest. Other articles by Giraldi can be found on the website of the Unz Review.