Monumental Ambition
Presidential libraries are history and hagiography, archival mother lodes and gift shops pushing star-spangled dish towels


By Paula Span
Sunday, February 17, 2002; Page W24


Clinton Library: Temporary Storage
A former Oldsmobile dealership in Little Rock serves as a temporary warehouse for Clinton documents and memorabilia. (Timothy Hursley)

Wasn't Bill Clinton supposed to have stopped campaigning by now? But here he is, striding triumphantly down the center aisle of a packed hall near the Little Rock airport.

All the familiar elements remain in place -- the whooping crowd, the rock anthem blaring from the sound system, the large men with wary eyes and curly wires snaking into their ears, a few of us reporters penned at one side -- as he grins and hugs his way toward the microphone. He's still hustling, our former president, and what he's hustling for today is depicted in an architectural drawing on the stage, behind the lectern and the potted plants: the William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum.

The actual site lies a few miles from here, 27 acres along the Arkansas River, once a swath of derelict warehouses and rusted railroad sidings. An airy glass rectangle will soon rise in their place.

Not far from there, in a bland, unmarked building that once housed the largest Oldsmobile dealership in Arkansas, the National Archives has stashed all the stuff that will fill the glass rectangle -- 80 million pages of presidential documents, 2 million photographs and 20,000 videotapes, 77,000 "artifacts," including an Elvis telephone. Eight lumbering military cargo planes flew it all down from Andrews Air Force Base, and before the waiting Clinton library archivists could make a dent in cataloguing the materials, they found themselves responding to subpoenas.

But this is not the place or time to talk about that whole fundraising-and-pardons mess. This is an ebullient Clinton's chance to tell his hometown loyalists about the striking structure that will prove "a great and lasting gift to the people of Arkansas who have been so good to me." To describe the adjacent University of Arkansas graduate school that will train students in public service. And to vow that he'll keep working on issues he cares about, using the library (there's a top-floor apartment for the Clintons) as a base along with his New York office -- an active post-presidency that sounds somewhat like Jimmy Carter's, but with better architecture.

Clinton has been taking great interest in his presidential library, the newest in our sea-to-sea chain of hybrid research institutions/celebratory monuments/minor tourist attractions. He's burrowed into the details, meeting multiple times with his architects and exhibit designers, insisting, for instance, that the Oval Office replica (almost every presidential library has one) have natural light. Next morning, he'll drop by that unmarked building and check the architectural model to determine the precise location of the visitors cafe.

Yes, it will all take a lot of money; each presidential library carries a heftier price tag, in private and federal funds, than the previous one. "But whatever it costs," Clinton tells the crowd, "when people come to it 100 years from now, when our great-grandchildren are going there and walking along the river and being part of it and being proud of it, we will be very glad we made this investment."

These are his smaller investors, friends and volunteers and contributors from years back, who opened their direct-mail pleas signed by James Carville and checked the box marked "YES, I'm proud to have supported Bill Clinton . . . and deeply appreciate what he accomplished for America and the world. Now I would like to play a personal role in preserving his legacy and ensuring that it lives on."

Of course, there was no box marked "NO." When you're trying to raise $200 million to enshrine a presidential legacy, you can't afford to take chances.

Even now, as he wages war against terrorism, our current commander in chief has this fact tucked away somewhere deep within: One day, all these memos and daily diaries and briefing books will be shipped to the George W. Bush Presidential Library, likely to have its own Oval Office replica. Archivists will start excavating and reviewing them, and even if it takes decades before some of these documents become public (and it will), someday this will all be History.

It's happened every four to eight years, starting with Franklin Roosevelt's library in Hyde Park, N.Y., and continuing through George H.W. Bush's in College Station, Tex. Clinton's will be the 12th, if we count Richard Nixon's in Yorba Linda, Calif., which operates without federal funds; in libraries, as in many things, Nixon occupies a unique status.

It's an odd system: We the taxpayers shelled out nearly $55 million for presidential libraries last year, and what have we gotten in return? A series of well-executed paeans to our past presidents, valuable archives where scholars have sometimes had to file lawsuits (or live to very advanced ages) to gain access, locations for elegant soirees, retail outlets selling bald eagle wind chimes and star-spangled dish towels. Is it really worth the investment?

In fact, system may be too methodical a word. Presidential libraries operate differently from one another both legally (because successive laws govern some and not others) and practically (because they reflect the values and personalities of individual presidents and their circles).

The Harry S. Truman Library in Independence, Mo., for instance, "looks like a mid-sized post office in a small town," says historian Kai Bird. "It's homey. They show you Truman's office, where he went to work every day, and it looks like a place where Harry could put his feet up and have a bourbon at the end of the afternoon."

By contrast the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library in Austin is "massive -- a huge, monolithic, windowless structure," says Robert A. Caro, who's spent years there working on his multivolume LBJ biography. "It's grandiose, and he wanted it that way; the structure says quite a bit about the man."

And the Ronald W. Reagan Presidential Library, befitting a free-market proponent, has the largest gift shop, offering everything from Reagan golf balls (three for 12 bucks) and toy models of Air Force One to "Gippergear" denim shirts and a vast selection of jelly beans. A jelly bean mosaic portrait of the president hangs proudly on the rear wall.

Certain tensions are built into these places, which embody the enduring ambivalence Americans have toward power and government. It shouldn't surprise us that with each new library, old questions reemerge.

Consider: We have decided that a president's papers, the records of his governance, belong to the people. Aside from what's classified or personal, they're ours; Congress said so when it passed the Presidential Records Act of 1978, a reform prompted by the conviction that Richard Nixon would have destroyed his tapes and documents if Congress hadn't intervened.

But though they're our papers, we don't relish the idea of paying for the monuments that house them. We're happy to leave that to the former presidents, their coteries of one-time officials and campaign contributors, and the long list of corporations, foreign governments and individuals they hit up for cash. Private foundations formed for this purpose raise the money to build and endow the libraries; then the National Archives and Records Administration steps in and oversees the papers, maintains the buildings and staffs them largely with federal employees.

Which means that each library has at least two functions. In the archives, over many years, political history begins to emerge from the acid-free boxes of papers. But there's also a museum that celebrates a president's accomplishments, while usually paying only perfunctory attention to his fizzles and fiascoes. The stuff in the boxes will probably provide the last word, historically speaking, but many more people visit the museums, with their congratulatory skew, than ever wade into the archives.

And the jousting over what's available therein and what remains sealed is relentless. Sometimes documents that scholars and researchers want to use are closed because, in libraries built before the 1978 legislation, the presidents or their families control access. (See under: JFK.) Frequently, there just aren't enough archivists to process papers in timely fashion. Sometimes the problem is that documents are classified for national security and can only be declassified by the agencies, like the Defense Department or the CIA, that stamped them "TOP SECRET" in the first place -- and they're in no hurry.

The latest struggle has involved 68,000 pages of documents from the Reagan years that were slated to be opened a year ago. The current Bush White House -- which happens to include a number of former Reagan officials -- has repeatedly delayed their release, though it recently did free 8,000 of them. And the president has signed an executive order that could, in the future, restrict public access to any president's (and even vice president's) papers. Infuriated historians, journalists and public-access litigators have filed suit in federal court, and it's not the first time. People can get touchy when they think history is being manipulated.

Most Americans probably didn't pay much attention to this corner of their national heritage until last year, when questions about Clintonian fundraising put presidential libraries in the media spotlight. As a result of that continuing dust-up, I began to wonder what really goes on in these places. So I traveled first to where they began: Hyde Park.

Visitors walking into the low fieldstone building that Franklin Roosevelt designed look a bit startled to encounter FDR himself seated in the lobby -- at least a reasonable facsimile, complete with a cigarette holder between his teeth, pince-nez propped on his nose and a black Scottish terrier at his feet. "Good aaafternoon, ladies," the prez says in that aristocratic drawl. "Graaand to see you. Have you met my little dog, Fala?"

I've arrived for the 60th anniversary celebration of the day Roosevelt dedicated this innovation. Before FDR (played today by a local lawyer who once starred in a community theater production of "Sunrise at Campobello") donated 16 acres of his family estate for this structure, departing presidents routinely walked away with their papers. Some documents subsequently found their way into the Library of Congress, but many were burned, scattered, lost, chewed by mice, sold to autograph collectors. Roosevelt envisioned a different fate.

His library pioneered the basic financial arrangements: Supporters raised $400,000 (a modest $5 million in current dollars) from 28,000 Americans while Congress approved legislation -- despite a Missouri Republican who protested that "only an egocentric megalomaniac would have the nerve to ask" -- to provide tax dollars for the repository's upkeep and administration. That public-private partnership endures. So does the idea that a presidential library properly includes a museum, though FDR expected his to hold his own huge collections of stamps and coins, ship models and naval prints. So does his inflated idea of how many people would show up: "very easily half a million visitors a year." Years later, Jimmy Carter and the Reagan library staff made similar predictions. All were deluded; after a flurry during the first few years, presidential libraries annually draw fewer than 70,000 museum visitors on the low end (Hoover and Carter) to just under 200,000 (JFK and LBJ).

Though Roosevelt still considered his papers his personal property, not ours, his gift allows ordinary Americans to look at the draft of a speech that originally read, "December 7, 1941, a day that will live in world history" -- and see the president's penciled revision: "in infamy."

But some of what Roosevelt had in mind has subsequently evolved -- or warped. He built his library in his home town; the graceful, porticoed house where he grew up is a short stroll away. Historians want to see where FDR spent his Hudson Valley boyhood, just as they relish exploring Truman's Independence, or Ike's Abilene, Kan.

For more recent presidents, however, decisions about a library's location can resemble the competition to host the Olympic Games: What counts, more than personal history, is the package. The senior Bush never lived or went to school in College Station; his library landed there because Texas A&M waged an aggressive campaign, beating out offers from Rice University and the University of Houston. The libraries keep getting larger than FDR imagined, too, partly because modern presidents generate more records, but also because of the large museum spaces devoted to the president himself, his life and exploits.

It's tempting to ask FDR himself about this transmogrification, so even though I know this guy with the cigarette holder is actually named Jonah Triebwasser, I corner him after his address. "I don't know that every president is worthy of a library," the FDR impersonator muses. "Not every president's time is so overwhelmingly interesting or historically significant that it deserves an edifice."

Spoken like an actor, not a politician. Before FDR, no president erected a library. Post-FDR, every president has one; even his predecessor liked the idea and, years after he left office, established the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch, Iowa. Roosevelt's brainchild was one, as he himself recognized, for which "future historians will curse as well as praise me."

"America's pyramids," Robert Caro calls them, "erected to the memory of the country's rulers."

I see what he means at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, second stop on my itinerary. The I.M. Pei-designed building, overlooking a sweep of harbor and city skyline, actually looks somewhat Cheopsian, an imposing block of black glass set into a triangular white concrete tower. JFK's marked the end of the folksy little "library in a cornfield," as the earlier ones are sometimes characterized; it ushered in size, grandeur, celebration on a more ambitious scale. Like every presidential library, it serves multiple functions, but it's also a shrine to the murdered leader: Kennedy as his family and associates want him remembered.

All presidential libraries' exhibits engage in legacy-burnishing. "It's subtle," says historian Robert Dallek, at work on a Kennedy biography. "It's emphasis. What do they put front and center? What's pushed over to the side?" But JFK's happens to do its buff-and-gloss maddeningly well, largely by wielding what Camelot itself used so adeptly: photos, film, television. "The images are so powerful, so compelling -- it's hard even for me to be objective," Dallek volunteers.

Take the exhibits re-creating the 1960 election. Dashing and vital, JFK gestures from a black-and-white cabinet TV in a faux store window; he argues from monitors in the "studio" where he and Nixon held the first televised presidential debate; footage of his campaign appearances and then his inaugural address ("Ask not . . .") bombards us at every turn.

"JFK, in this museum, speaks for himself," explains its affable curator, Frank Rigg, a 22-year library veteran, who strolls through with me pointing out his favorite exhibits and documents. "We don't have narrators or interpreters . . . We ask our visitors to become citizens of the 1950s and early '60s; we try to provide them with some sense of how Americans experienced JFK at that time." That means the exhibits -- revamped in 1993 -- don't provide hindsight on where Kennedy's policies led or render historians' judgments; this, Rigg acknowledges, is the president's own perspective.

We're mostly conscious of JFK's wit, his ease, his youth. How many people pay attention to the text panel on a side wall that, in five paragraphs, delineates the failed Bay of Pigs invasion that Kennedy authorized in Cuba? How many notice the anguished letter, in a small display case below, from a California woman who wrote the president asking why her brother had been killed in a place called Vietnam? Southeast Asia, Rigg points out, was not at the top of the Kennedy administration's foreign policy agenda; Berlin was deemed more crucial. (Selectivity prevails at other libraries, too: the Iran-contra scandal gets a scant text panel in a dim corner of the Reagan exhibit.)

It's a matter, as Dallek says, of emphasis. The Bay of Pigs isn't omitted, just -- literally -- off to the side. But next door there's an entire gallery devoted to the Peace Corps, then another celebrating the space program. A heroic film on the Cuban missile crisis -- the president's doodles on a legal pad ("missile, missile, missile . . . Pearl Harbor") are displayed outside the theater -- is among the museum's most popular exhibits.

Amid all the visuals of the vigorous president sailing and playing touch football, I find no mention of his chronically poor health. Kennedy, later biographers have pointed out, suffered from Addison's disease and crippling back pain; he used crutches and canes and numerous drugs while releasing deceptively sunny doctors' reports to the press and public. As for the assassination, it's presented grimly but briefly. The museum's designers want visitors to leave feeling uplifted, ready to pick up the torch of public service, not depressed.

Mortality, missteps and misjudgments -- that's not what presidential library museums are about. Their common ideology is what historian Stephen Ambrose calls "triumphalism, not just for the president, but for the country."

Triumphalism has gotten increasingly expensive, however, which is why Bill Clinton was standing on another stage in another Little Rock auditorium on another day, acknowledging a $250,000 gift from the philanthropic arm of SBC, the telecommunications corporation. The corporate executives beamed; the former president beamed; Skip Rutherford, the longtime sidekick and marketing maven who heads the Clinton library foundation, looked particularly happy.

The easiest time for a president to raise money for his library is before he leaves office. "On January 20, the light gets switched off," says historian Richard Norton Smith, who's been director of several presidents' libraries. "It's like Cinderella's coach turning back into a pumpkin." Like Reagan, his predecessor as an eight-year president, Clinton took advantage of that reality.

At the end of 1999, with a bit more than a year left in his administration, his library foundation had raised nearly $6 million, IRS documents indicate. The following year -- after a Barbra Streisand-hosted brunch in Malibu and quiet dinners in New York and seven-figure promises from corporate tycoons, the total in cash and pledges had passed $20 million. Then came the discovery that among the president's pardons last January was one for on-the-lam financier Marc Rich, whose ex-wife had contributed 450,000 tax-deductible dollars to the Clinton library foundation. Suddenly two congressional committees were holding hearings; the U.S. attorney in New York was issuing subpoenas; and presidential library fundraising had become a front-page story.

Now Rutherford, who meets me one morning at Andina's coffee shop on President Clinton Avenue in Little Rock, is being cautious, befitting one who'd been threatened with contempt of Congress unless he turned over the foundation's list of contributors. (A compromise allowed him to show selected members of the House Government Reform Committee the names of about 120 people who'd given large contributions, without making them public.)

Rutherford is happy to introduce me to the house brews: Bill's Decaf ("powerful but gentle") or Hillary's Blend ("elegant, bright and strong"). He's delighted to drive me around this reviving River Market district, pointing out the new loft apartments, the boutiques and eateries, a refurbished hotel -- all within walking distance of the Clinton library, which, he predicts, will generate nearly $11 million a year in economic development. But he won't reveal how much of the $200 million private fundraising goal has been met, except to say -- with a sly little smile -- "we're making good progress." And he's not obliged to. Though the Clinton library will probably engrave its major donors' names in the lobby one day, as other presidential libraries do, it's not legally required to identify any of them.

Should it be? Bills have been introduced to compel disclosure of contributors, at least larger ones. The president of Common Cause, testifying before a House committee last spring, went further, urging Congress to bar all fundraising by sitting presidents, prohibit donations from foreign nationals or governments, and consider limiting amounts.

Yet even if we regulate fundraising more strictly, money and politics are irretrievably entangled with presidential libraries. Who runs them, after all? The archivist of the United States appoints each library's director after "consultation" with the ex-president, but that's a euphemism. "A living former president, as a practical matter, signs off on the selection," Smith says. Some select career archivists or museum professionals; others tap former aides or party stalwarts. And those foundations don't dematerialize after the libraries get turned over to the National Archives; they still wield purse-string power, funding exhibits and setting priorities, sometimes in ways the professional staff appreciates, sometimes not.

A living former president signs off on the museum, too, if he chooses. Clinton, after his SBC appearance, went off to a three-hour working lunch with exhibit designer Ralph Appelbaum and his team. What inquiring minds want to know, naturally, is how this library will tackle Clinton's impeachment and its causes. "We'll deal with it as a constitutional issue and as a civics lesson," says Appelbaum, explaining that one of the "thematic galleries" that address issues from family leave to the Dayton accords will present that part of the saga.

And who decides whether that or any exhibit trumpets or soft-pedals an issue? "Why, the president, of course," Appelbaum says. "It's his library."

In the research room at the Reagan library, set among scrubby brown mountains an hour north of Los Angeles in Simi Valley, you can pore over thousands of documents on subjects like U.S.-Soviet arms negotiations and Supreme Court nominations. You can also sort through boxes of press releases. "We've got junk and good stuff and everything in between," archivist Diane Barrie says. Today, having foraged in the temperature-controlled stacks, she's going to show me a bit of the good stuff.

Here's a draft of a letter Reagan wrote Leonid Brezhnev in 1981, while still hospitalized after the assassination attempt, Barrie says, riffling through a box of recently declassified National Security Council files. Reagan began by referring to the "somewhat intemperate tone" of the Soviet leader's previous correspondence, then crossed out that possible provocation. The final letter opens with his reminiscence of meeting Brezhnev years earlier and goes on to urge that their governments fulfill "our joint obligation to find lasting peace." And here's one of Brezhnev's responses -- evidently unsatisfying -- from the following year. Reagan inked sardonic comments in its margins: "He has to be kidding." "He's a barrel of laughs." Reagan would like Mikhail Gorbachev better.

What Barrie can't show me are any of the disputed pages duly reviewed by the archivists and scheduled for final review and then release last January. The staff had already opened 5 million pages of the Great Communicator's papers, but these 68,000 pages were the first batch to fall under the Presidential Records Act's 12-year rule, and Reagan's was the first library to which that act applied. It says that presidents can restrict access to specific kinds of information for up to 12 years beyond leaving office.

What's been holding up these documents isn't the Reagan folks, but the current Bush White House. The White House counsel first delayed release three times; then in November, Bush issued a controversial executive order that essentially allows either a sitting or a former president to block release of presidential papers. The White House said the order would provide an "orderly process" for release. Historians -- who denounced the action, as did some members of Congress, editorial writers and insiders in previous administrations -- suspected other motives, such as protecting Reagan-era officials now back in government, sheltering George H.W. Bush's vice presidential papers, or shielding decisions about the war on terrorism from later public scrutiny. Whatever the motive, historian Robert Dallek groans, "they always find reasons to sit on material."

Indeed, many of the same parties who filed the current lawsuit aimed at overturning the executive order have gone to court before over similar access issues. Litigation over the fate of Nixon's papers and tapes dragged on for more than 20 years. It also took a suit to force the National Archives to electronically preserve White House e-mails. Policies on declassifying documents, which greatly affect the libraries' ability to open files, swing back and forth every few years as various presidents make declassification easier, then harder again.

Certain libraries develop reputations for letting the sun shine or locking things up. The one scholars denounce most, hands down, is JFK's. "They weren't there to serve history; they were there to serve the Kennedys," charges Richard Reeves, author of books on several presidencies, in a typical complaint. "They were paid by the U.S. government but they acted as if you had no right to see this stuff."

The list of grievances is long: that the library poked along so slowly that it will take 20 more years, given current staff levels, to process its backlog of materials. That its declassification efforts proved similarly sluggish. That half of JFK's White House tapes (Nixon was correct when he whined that previous presidents did it, too) remain unreleased nearly four decades after the president's death. That the committees that control access to the family's papers, headed by Kennedy relatives or associates, have given favored authors permission to use them while barring others.

All this is quite legal: As a pre-1978 library, the JFK is not governed by the Presidential Records Act. These aren't "our" papers; individuals donated them through various deeds and can impose conditions on their use. The library's new director and foundation president, both outsiders instead of the administration aides and intimates who ran the library for years, acknowledge past problems and are vowing changes. "My biggest priority is to make the archives more effective so that we can make the material available to the public," says director Deborah Leff.

By contrast, the LBJ library, operating under the same legal structure, has won widespread applause for its accessibility. Director Harry Middleton, who just retired after 30 years at the helm, was "the Joe DiMaggio of presidential library directors," says Michael Beschloss, who recently published his second volume of LBJ's transcribed tapes. "Here's a case where you had 10,000 conversations. They didn't know what was in them, but they didn't go through them to sanitize or hold things back . . . They've met that test -- opening things as quickly and widely as possible -- with flying colors."

Johnson had ordered his tapes sealed until at least 2023. But Middleton -- an LBJ aide and speechwriter, just the sort of confidant who might be expected to throw up barricades -- "began to gnaw on the problem," he says. During a vacation in Acapulco, he spoke with Lady Bird Johnson about the tapes (neither had known they existed until after LBJ died in 1973). "I told her I felt they were very important to history, and that if the president were still alive, I'd be able to persuade him to release them. And she agreed."

Johnson's standing has risen since, a predictable response. When a president leaves office, after years of slings and arrows, "people see everything that's wrong with him," Stephen Ambrose says. "Then the biographies start to come out and the papers begin to come out, and that reputation begins to climb . . . People begin to see things from his point of view."

That's what all former presidents seem to want, the public's accolades, history's vindication. And no president wanted it more than Richard Nixon.

Creme de la Creme Catering is already unloading at the rear entrance to the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace in Yorba Linda when I arrive on a sunny Sunday morning. A string quartet is playing Pachelbel in the Pat Nixon Amphitheater, an expanse of lawn surrounded by a gorgeous rose garden. Kevin and Camille are getting married.

They'll take their vows in the curlicued white gazebo -- the actual confection itself, not a replica -- made for Tricia Nixon's White House wedding in 1971. Then, in front of the tiny clapboard cottage where Richard Nixon was born, they'll celebrate with an outdoor brunch for 125. The florists are toting in fall-themed centerpieces with mums and figs; the caterers are setting up the chafing dishes and calling, "I need three bags of ice here!" and, "Where are we serving the chardonnay?" Inside the museum, not far from the domestic affairs exhibits, I can glimpse bridesmaids smoothing their dresses.

The Nixon library, appropriately, is different. You can't stage your wedding or bar mitzvah in the federally supported facilities at other presidential libraries, though their foundations may host cultural, educational or corporate events. But a sign at the Nixon library entrance proclaims it "the only Presidential Library that does not accept taxpayers' funds." It's not eligible for any, because Nixon's presidential papers and tapes, seized by a 1974 act of Congress, remain 3,000 miles away in College Park, in the custody of the National Archives. This place, though it includes his pre- and post-presidential papers, functions mostly as a privately run museum and historic site -- and, inadvertently, as an alternative model of how presidential libraries might operate.

The Nixon library has to continually find ways to raise private money. Hence the 40 weddings and 35 high school proms held annually, at $3,900 plus $2.95 per guest. Hence the facsimile of the East Room the library will build, which will accommodate additional soirees. Hence the Nixonalia for sale on the library's Web site, whose promotional brochure invites shoppers to -- honest -- "Click With Dick."

The library doesn't really cherish its novel status. While Nixon lived, he fought ceaselessly to regain control of his papers; after his death, his estate settled a long-standing lawsuit with a deal that set forth procedures and timetables for opening tapes and documents. It also began negotiating with the National Archives to transfer Nixon's materials to Yorba Linda, making this a standard presidential library. "The estate was very much in favor of it," says John Taylor, its coexecutor and the library's director. But the deal collapsed, partly because "at the 11th hour plus 59 seconds, we received a document blocking the agreement" -- from Tricia Nixon and her husband, Ed Cox. So this library remains the odd library out -- and, therefore, instructive.

From time to time, people cast about for alternatives to the presidential library system, ways to preserve history while avoiding monumentalism, financial conflicts and political back-scratching. Robert Dallek, for instance, has proposed full federal funding for presidential libraries. No more mendicant presidents or meddling relatives! The problem is that even scholars who embrace the idea can't imagine it ever happening.

Then there's the reformist approach, keeping the basic structure but fiddling with the particulars. Such attempts have had mixed results, however. The Presidential Records Act was meant to ensure public access, but the first time a key provision takes effect, all those Reagan papers get bottled up. The Presidential Libraries Act of 1986, intended to cap size and costs by limiting federal support to just 70,000 square feet of each new building, hasn't curbed the edifice complex. The libraries grow anyway, with universities or their own foundations picking up the tab.

Perhaps, then, the Nixon model. Why not hand over all presidential materials to the National Archives for preservation, processing and public access? Then presidents and their wealthy pals could build their shrines without any taxpayer money and without the pretense of neutrality, the fig leaf of federal supervision.

Well, nobody likes that idea much either. History is not made only in Washington, presidential library supporters argue, and it shouldn't all be shipped to Washington. Besides, people all over the country should be able to see an Oval Office replica, or a traveling exhibit on World War II or a collection of presidential portraits from the National Portrait Gallery. The libraries also serve as regional cultural institutions, places that draw busloads of schoolchildren, stage debates on public issues, host Fourth of July celebrations.

Moreover, "the secret to openness is pluralism," argues Tom Blanton of the National Security Archive, an access-advocacy group that collects and publishes declassified documents. Researchers soon learned that, thanks to the libraries' idiosyncrasies, papers still classified at the Kennedy library were already open at the LBJ. Vietnam material could be unearthed at the Gerald R. Ford Library while the Nixon archivists in College Park were still shackled by litigation. Socking everything in a central repository could actually decrease access.

On top of that, a walk through the Nixon library, a darkly acrimonious establishment in a sunny, flower-filled setting, gives one pause: Do we really want schoolkids visiting a string of museums like this one? Its exhibits go beyond image-polishing to score-settling. The introductory film attributes Nixon's defeat in the 1960 election to "rampant vote-stealing in Illinois and Texas." Down the hall, we learn that the real lesson of the first televised presidential debate was that "style can triumph over substance." A text panel on the antiwar movement describes "a nationwide terrorist offensive by radical student groups whose aim was to undermine the very foundation of American society."

As for the large Watergate exhibit -- in a long dark tunnel of a room -- its dense text argues for Nixon's innocence while taking shots at his adversaries (Sen. Sam Ervin, chair of the committee considering impeachment, gets a sneer for voting against the Civil Rights Act nine years earlier, then being "suddenly elevated to the lofty status of guardian of the Constitution").

Visitors can also don headphones to listen to the "smoking gun" tape of June 23, 1972, the one that led to Nixon's resignation and, in much of the world, is considered proof that the president conspired in the Watergate coverup. What reverberates through the headset, however, is a narrator's long explanation of why "the smoking gun is not what it once appeared to be." We also hear entries from Nixon's own dictated diaries, meant to persuade us that there was no coverup. All we hear from the June 23 tape itself are four segments lifted from a much longer conversation -- an edited Watergate tape.

"This was our nine acres," John Taylor acknowledges. "And there was some stuff we were going to get into the record."

When I called the White House some months back, trying to locate the factotum overseeing decisions about the future George W. Bush Library, I was told no such person existed yet. "Presidents are real superstitious about talking about libraries in the first term because it looks like, 'Heck, I'm gonna be a one-term president,' " says Skip Rutherford, who couldn't get Clinton to focus on the issue until after his reelection.

But every president knows going in that he gets a library coming out, and this one knows better than most: George W. headed his father's library foundation for its first three years. In fact, George W. had barely taken office when Texas newspapers began reporting that the University of Texas-Arlington was openly maneuvering to land his library. But Southern Methodist University was apparently also interested, along with Texas Tech.

Wherever his library sets up shop, we can envision it, can't we? A large building with wealthy Republican donors' names carved into a marble lobby; a small staff of archivists toiling year after year while would-be biographers grumble about the inevitable delays; a jazzy multimedia museum that tracks the 43rd president's achievements and features a selection of Laura Bush's gowns and a really big gift shop.

And maybe that's not such a bad approach, finally. The presidential library system is unruly, erratic, occasionally screwy and often exasperating. But it reminds you of what Churchill said about democracy, which was -- to paraphrase -- it's a lousy system but all the others are worse. And it has a quiet ally: time.

The passage of decades improves presidential libraries, eventually leaching away the political and financial pressures, the tendency toward idolatry. The presidents and their undersecretaries die; the partisan fires subside; the documents once stamped confidential no longer contain secrets worth hiding. Even the museums grow more balanced. History takes over and slowly works its will, and the records of a political era are there, collected, a trove waiting to yield its information. If you're willing to wade through it, says Robert Caro, who's spent years doing just that, it's astonishing what you can find.

No other democracy attempts anything quite so ambitious, so ultimately revealing. "Does it have flaws? Sure, just like America has flaws," says Ambrose, to whom I'll give the last word. "But you can't get to Churchill's papers, or de Gaulle's, like you can get at FDR's. Hirohito, I think one guy's been allowed to see his diaries.

"In the U.S., when you're elected president, you know people are going to be able to examine the full record. Might not be 10 years after you leave office, or 20 years. Might be 50 years. But we are a democracy, and people are going to see."

Paula Span (pspan@bellatlantic.net) is a staff writer for the Magazine. She will be fielding questions and comments about this article at 1 p.m. Tuesday on www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline. News researcher Richard Drezen assisted with this story.


© 2002 The Washington Post Company