Presidential libraries: Style and guile; The search for a home for Mr Obama’s library and museum has begun

Presidential libraries: Style and guile; The search for a home for Mr Obama’s library and museum has begun

Mar 29th 2014 | CHICAGO | From the print edition

“AT THEIR best, they are lively classrooms of democracy,” says Richard Norton Smith, a historian who specialises in presidential libraries. They are also something of a misnomer. People who wander in expecting to borrow “The Cat in the Hat” tend to find instead a museum, a replica of the Oval Office and many floors of documents.

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Last week the Barack Obama Foundation invited applications from institutions interested in giving room to the 14th presidential library. Marty Nesbitt, a member of the foundation board and a friend of the Obamas, says a shortlist of sites will be presented to Mr and Mrs Obama early next year. The foundation wants to create an institution that reflects the commander-in-chief’s values and priorities, as well as serving as a “force for good in the surrounding community”.

Columbia University in New York, the president’s alma mater, is preparing a bid. So too is his birth state of Hawaii. But Chicago, with its strong Obama ties, is assumed to be the front-runner. Mr Obama worked as a community organiser in the South Side, represented the area as a state senator, and was on the faculty of the University of Chicago for 12 years. A number of institutions are vying to make a bid in Chicago, well aware that presidential libraries can spur the local economy. Susan Sher, a former chief of staff to Michelle Obama who is co-ordinating the University of Chicago’s bid, says a number of sites in the South Side, including Bronzeville, are being considered.

The money needed to build the library—possibly about $500m—will be raised by the foundation. This will include an endowment to cover some of the maintenance costs. The rest will come from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) which is charged with running all the presidential libraries at an annual cost of $70m.

Last year a mere 10,600 scholars used the libraries. By contrast 730,000 people attended public and educational programmes there, and 2.4m people visited the associated museums (see chart). Ronald Reagan’s library in Simi, California was the most visited in 2013, with some 425,000 trooping in to see, among other things, his Air Force One. Online visits are more numerous and growing rapidly. Every library seems to be bigger than the last, but then records and artefacts are accumulating at an ever-faster clip. Herbert Hoover’s library stores 500 gifts; Dwight Eisenhower’s, 25,000; that of Bill Clinton (a man of appetites), more than 150,000.

Since presidents usually live for decades after they leave office, the library becomes a tool for defining—cynics would say, polishing—their legacy. But they also try to continue the work of a president. The Obama Foundation hopes his library will be “the most connected, interactive presidential library in history”. Until the next even-more-wired president, that is.

In the long term, the libraries are most useful for the access they offer to presidential documents, which tell the true story of the man and his times. But it seems that attention to the flashier, exhibition side of things is detracting from NARA’s real work: making documents available for public release. Fully 40% of NARA’s text holdings have not been processed. And they have plenty to reveal. Eisenhower, for example—says Mr Smith—was widely known in his time as a “genial duffer”. When the papers in his library were examined he was seen as far more sophisticated, even ruthless: “Behind the smile was guile.

 

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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