In 2007, I had the privilege of becoming the first director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. My job was to move Nixon’s presidential materials from the Washington, D.C. area, where they had been kept as federal property because of the Watergate investigation, to California, where Nixon’s friends and supporters had built a private library in 1990. My job involved transforming the once private library, which had a reputation for being a national center of Watergate denial, into a public, nonpartisan facility.
Sometime in 2010, I was surprised (and frankly, a little proud) when my boss at the National Archives told me that my name had been invoked in negotiations over the future George W. Bush Presidential Library. Apparently, the George W. Bush Foundation was worried “some future Naftali” would “want to put up a torture exhibit.”
It’s true that I had managed to anger Nixon loyalists. As part of the Nixon Library’s rebranding mission, I had brought in serious critics of the former president — notably Elizabeth Drew and John Dean — to the library and vowed to have an honest exhibit on Watergate. And the Nixonians made their feelings known. In 2009, the private Nixon Foundation sent a letter to every living former president denouncing me personally — “Who is this Naftali,” a puzzled President Bill Clinton is said to have asked, “and why should I care?” — for messing up the library system by trying to achieve nonpartisanship in Yorba Linda. The Bushies were apparently arguing for control of the temporary exhibit gallery to prevent it from being used by a future federal director for an exhibit that might cast Bush 43 in a negative light.
The creation of every new presidential library involves negotiations over an agreement — a treaty — between the federal government and the former president and his representatives. Called a Joint Use Agreement, the contract divides up responsibility for the space at the library between the private presidential foundation, which is usually dedicated to promoting the positive legacy of a president, and the American people. Areas controlled by the private presidential foundation, such as the impressive Air Force One Pavilion at the Reagan Library, can have partisan events such as Republican presidential debates. Those spaces controlled by the National Archives on behalf of the American people, however, are legally mandated to be nonpartisan.
In dealing with the Bush Foundation, the National Archives apparently held the line — as it did with the private Nixon Foundation — and, according to the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum website, all of the galleries that will be dedicated today are indeed controlled by all of us. If the final agreement is anything like the treaty governing the Nixon Library, the National Archives has veto power on your behalf over all exhibits and programs at this new presidential library.
That’s right. Whatever you think of President George W. Bush, you control the Bush Library. And you should, since every year you will spend about $4 million on it — the same amount of public funds spent on every one of the 12 other presidential libraries.
One of the misconceptions about presidential libraries is that they are supposed to be shrines. But Congress is not interested in creating shrines to the branch of government at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. It is one of the strange outcomes of the separation of powers doctrine that one branch has to pay to archive and display the documents and trinkets of a competing branch. In recent years, Congress has shown its displeasure by trying to narrow the streams of public money that go to presidential libraries. The younger President Bush had to raise a lot more money than his father, not just because construction costs had increased in 15 years, but because Congress expects the friends of presidents to create an endowment to help shoulder the burden of maintaining the buildings forever.