Perhaps the hottest controversy involving a nonprofit this year was the scandal over whether President Bill Clinton, in his last days in office, rewarded contributors to his presidential library foundation with presidential pardons and other favors. But the controversy over funding for the Clinton presidential library raises a deeper question, which reaches into our nation’s past: why do presidents have to create nonprofits after they leave office?
Presidential libraries, it turns out, serve two functions: they are built to serve scholarly researchers, but also ordinary tourists who want to gaze at John F. Kennedy’s yacht, Harry S Truman’s original “The Buck Stops Here” sign, and even more esoteric memorabilia. Among the items preserved at the Reagan Library, for example, are 40 walking sticks (including one made by the Marquis de Lafayette and one filled with jelly beans) and a handmade covered wagon labeled “TRAIL BLAZIN’ FOR TAX REFORM,” donated to President Reagan in the 1980s by then-Senator John Ashcroft.
Far from being cathedrals or memorials, presidential libraries have evolved into popular institutions similar to living-history museums. Curt Smith, a speechwriter for George Bush and author of a book on presidential libraries, says that when he does book signings, he frequently encounters families who collect presidential library visits as enthusiastically as sports fans who try to catch a game at every big-league ballpark. “I was at the Bush Library at a signing,” Smith says, “and people kept telling me the number of libraries they had been to.”
Government funding of presidential libraries remains controversial. Troll through any right-wing Web site and you’ll find all sorts of grouching about taxpayer subsidies to the Clinton presidential library. But such complaints cross ideological lines: at a 1997 call-in show commemorating the opening of the George H. W. Bush library, mild-mannered host Brian Lamb received so many vitriolic complaints about ill-spent tax dollars that he had to use a siren to silence the irate callers.
Presidential libraries represent an uneasy compromise between the personal desire of presidents to immortalize their accomplishments and the demands of archivists that papers be preserved. This compromise took nearly two centuries to achieve.
Salvaging for History
For most of our history, there was a simple rule about presidential papers: they were the property of the president. As historian Bernard A. Weisberger notes, historically the president was “an independent government agency . . . accountable only to God, the Constitution, and the electorate.” And with independence came control of his papers.
So for the 19th century and much of the 20th, one of the last duties of the president was to cart away his papers and make arrangements for them. John Adams, according to some historians, kept his papers securely under his control because he did not want his successor, Thomas Jefferson, to read them. James Madison would routinely cut out his signature from official documents and send it to autograph collectors.
Quite a few collections were ruined by disgruntled or careless heirs who quarreled over the papers, sold them to collectors, or let them fall prey to rot or fire. Abraham Lincoln’s son, Robert Todd Lincoln, for example, would toss his father’s papers in a steamer trunk and cart them back and forth between his winter home in Washington, D.C., and his summer home in Manchester, Vermont. Heirs often fought over who owned a president’s papers and how much they were worth. In the most notorious case, disputes over ownership caused a delay of over a hundred years—the lifetimes of John Quincy Adams, John Quincy Adams Jr., John Quincy Adams III, and John Quincy Adams IV—before the papers of John Adams and John Quincy Adams were organized and published by the Massachusetts Historical Society.
One exception to this general rule of neglect was Rutherford B. Hayes, who was an ardent book collector and champion of public libraries. Hayes’s papers were preserved in his family’s home in Fremont, Ohio. In 1910, his son, Colonel Webb Hayes, donated the farm and the presidential papers to the state of Ohio, which agreed to preserve the estate and build a library to house the papers. The Hayes Memorial Library—now funded by the state of Ohio and operated by the Ohio Historical Society—became the first presidential library.
Another promising development took place in 1897, when the Library of Congress opened its Manuscript Division. Between 1900 and 1920, energetic Library of Congress archivists dealt with the heirs of 23 presidents (including the descendants of Washington, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt) and brought their surviving papers to the Library of Congress’s Manuscript Reading Room, which serves as an unofficial presidential library.
Nevertheless, presidents and their heirs continued to maintain full control of their papers, and two more acts of desecration occurred in the 1920s. According to historian Frank L. Schick, after Warren G. Harding’s death in 1923, his widow, Florence “Flossie” Harding, went through the papers and destroyed all of the promiscuous president’s correspondence with his numerous girlfriends as well as any papers that would link Harding to the many scandals that clouded his administration. Harding’s military aide, Major Ora M. Baldinger, stated that Mrs. Harding hadn’t been that thorough, torching only “as much or more than half of the materials available to her.”
Calvin Coolidge had no scandals or girlfriends to worry about, but he was a reticent man who did not want anyone to know about his inner life. “I have never been hurt by what I have not said,” Coolidge once quipped, and acted on his maxim by weeding out personal references in his papers. The Coolidge presidential papers that survive in the Library of Congress, notes Schick, largely consist of letters “from people who wrote to him for various reasons, and carbon copies of his routine replies.”
Faced with the poor examples of Harding and Coolidge, the more responsible Herbert Hoover began to deposit his papers with Stanford University in 1919. This collection formed the nucleus of what was to become the Hoover Institution.
It was Franklin D. Roosevelt, however, who invented the modern presidential library. In 1938, he consulted with his old friend, historian Samuel Eliot Morison, about what to do with his papers. Morison recommended keeping them in one place. “Whatever you do, Mr. President,” Morison wrote, “don’t break up the collection, giving some to your children, others to Harvard, etc.! Although [your] alma mater would benefit, such dispersion offends all my professorial principles.” Roosevelt announced in 1938 that he was raising money for a presidential library at his home in Hyde Park, New York. Over 28,000 people contributed, and the library was completed and donated to the government in 1940.
Seeing that FDR had a library, Harry S Truman decided he wanted one too. Herbert Hoover, after quarreling with Stanford, then decided he needed a presidential library as well and moved his presidential papers to a library built in West Branch, Iowa (while keeping his non-presidential papers at the Hoover Instution). A tradition was born.
Evolution of Ownership
The Presidential Libraries Act of 1955 authorized the National Archives to run presidential libraries, while ensuring that accompanying museums would be paid for with private donations. But the bill did not end the tradition that presidential papers were the president’s personal property. This decision still affects the way the Kennedy and Nixon libraries are run.
When John F. Kennedy died, his heirs donated his papers to the library with a bewildering series of restrictions. In a 1999 doctoral dissertation, Lynn Scott Cochrane describes the Kennedy archives as “a complicated mixture of collections, some given by deed-of-gift, others simply ‘on deposit’ at the library but not owned by it.” Restrictions are tighter for papers of members of the Kennedy family. Scholars who wish to look at the papers of JFK’s father, Joseph P. Kennedy, have to get approval from a committee. Permission to read an oral history by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis must be granted by her daughter, Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg.
Boston University historian Robert Dallek, a biographer of both Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, wants the Kennedy Library to open up more archives. Dallek believes the library has been somewhat secretive because “JFK’s reputation had nowhere to go but down” because of revelations about the president’s flings. By contrast, he praises the Lyndon Johnson Library for keeping very few files closed. After the Vietnam War, Dallek said, “LBJ’s reputation had nowhere to go but up,” so the Johnson Library has always been more open and accessible to scholars than the JFK Library.
The Nixon Library was also affected by the doctrine that claims presidential papers are a president’s property. When Nixon resigned in 1974, some feared he would destroy the White House tapes and other incriminating material. His presidential papers were kept by the government. Nixon promptly sued, demanding compensation for the seized property. Twenty-seven years later, the suit has yet to be settled.
Thus Richard Nixon’s papers are divided in a way similar to Herbert Hoover’s. Nixon’s presidential papers—and the tapes—are in a National Archives annex in College Park, Maryland, while his non-presidential papers are in the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace in Yorba Linda, California.
In 1978, Congress declared that the papers of all presidents from Ronald Reagan onward were government property. But politicians of both parties, led by Senator Lawton Chiles, Democrat of Florida, and Senator John Chafee, Republican of Rhode Island, fumed that funding the libraries was not a proper duty of the government. Chafee declared that the libraries were “really government-supported monuments to the memories of former presidents.”
The most recent legislation remains the Presidential Libraries Act of 1986, which declared that presidents from George H. W. Bush on, should they want to set up a library, had to raise enough money to pay for 20 percent of the total cost of building and maintaining it. In short, the law requires a president interested in constructing a library to become his own nonprofit after leaving office.
Lyndon Johnson was the last president who did not have to raise funds for his library, which was entirely paid for by the state of Texas. Ever since then, presidents have done some fund raising; only George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, however, have been legally required to establish nonprofits.
The question of who contributes money to presidential libraries can only be partially answered. President Clinton’s lawyers were correct when they said that nonprofits do not have to reveal the names of donors who donate out of pocket. Private foundations do, of course, have to disclose their grants. The Foundation Center’s database of foundation grants over $10,000 lists only one organization’s contribution to the William J. Clinton Presidential Foundation—the Anheuser-Busch Foundation. By contrast, the Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and Bush Libraries—as well as the Carter Center, a think tank located across the street from the Carter Presidential Library—have enjoyed much greater foundation support (see sidebar).
Individual donors—often former campaign contributors—have been generous supporters of various presidential libraries. Among the board members of the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace Foundation’s board were seven members of the Forbes 400, including such well-known philanthropists as former Treasury secretary William E. Simon, investment banker Shelby Cullom Davis, real-estate tycoon David Murdock, and publisher Walter Annenberg. The Ronald Reagan Library’s board—and, presumably, donor list—includes Lew Wasserman, long-time chairman of MCA (parent company of Universal Studios); Forbes publisher Steve Forbes; and Walter Annenberg. Even foreign governments have gotten in on the act: Japan gave the Gerald R. Ford library $1 million and the George H. W. Bush library $1.5 million.
The donors to the Clinton library are only known at the moment to the library’s fund raisers and Congressional investigators. But a 1999 New York Times article reported that “generous pledges” had been made to the library by Hollywood moguls David Geffen and Steven Spielberg, as well as California supermarket entrepreneur Ronald W. Burkle. (All three men, however, refused to comment.) A 1999 Washington Post article reported that Burkle, Lew Wasserman, and Fox Family Worldwide chairman Haim Saban were each prepared to give between $5 and $10 million. Those prepared to donate $1 million to the library included developer Walter Shorenstein, Global Crossing chairman Gary Winnick, former Democratic National Committee finance chairman Alan Solomon, investors Alan Shuman and Tom Lee, aviation leasing executive Farhad Azima, and fashion-industry executive Arnold Simon.
There are, of course, opportunities for the small donor at library gift shops. The John F. Kennedy Library, for example, has an officially authorized JFK “GI Joe Action Figure,” depicting Kennedy as commander of the doomed World War II ship PT 109. The action figure—part of a series of toys produced by Hasbro that include likenesses of George Washington, George S. Patton, and Colin Powell—was introduced to the press last August. At the press conference, the library’s curators displayed one of the library’s most treasured objects: the coconut on which JFK scrawled his location and which he then set adrift before his boat sank.
The Reagan library is responsible for one of the rarest items of recent presidential memorabilia: photographs of Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and Bush at the library’s 1991 dedication signed by all five presidents. It’s unclear how many of these signed photos exist—estimates range up to 500 copies—nor is it known how much money the library raised from them.
But the grand champion producer of presidential merchandise is the Richard Nixon Library. Just “click with Dick” at the library’s Web site and you can load your electronic shopping cart with all kinds of stuff. Want a copy of the famous photo of Nixon and Elvis Presley? Well, you can have that photo on a coffee mug, computer mouse pad, watch, refrigerator magnet, or throw rug (“Cuddle up with the King and the President!”). The library will also happily sell you presidential soap, an “Eagle Crest striped tie” (“Nixon Library staffers wear these with pride”), and, of course, the presidential cap (“highest-level headwear. Your friends will ask, ‘Where did you get that?’”) The library also does a brisk business in weddings and banquets—Southern California brides can pose under the same gazebo that Tricia Nixon sat under during her White House wedding—and boasts “the largest ballroom in Orange County outside of a hotel.”
So what is the future of presidential libraries? It’s likely there will be more disclosure of donors. A bill passed by the House Government Reform Committee in May would require acknowledgement of all library donations of $200 or more while a president is in office and $5,000 after a president leaves office.
Nonetheless, even in the wake of the recent scandals, there has been no attempt to nationalize presidential libraries. Thus it’s likely that, when George W. Bush leaves office, he’ll have to get to work raising money for his library. And when he becomes a fund raiser, it’s likely that foundations and donors will be there to help him.
Martin Morse Wooster is a contributing editor of Philanthropy and author of The Foundation Builders.