The president will take the oath of office Monday, but this column deals with the opposite end of the spectrum when the president leaves office. The Presidential Library System began in 1939 when President Roosevelt donated his presidential papers to the federal government. Motivating this decision was the belief that such records are an important source of information that should be accessible to the public. President Truman decided to build a library in 1950.
In 1955, Congress passed the Presidential Libraries Act, which provided for a system of privately created, publicly owned libraries. Presidents were encouraged to donate their papers upon leaving office. The program is administered by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). To date, 13 presidential libraries dating from the administration of Herbert Hoover operate under this program, including the George W. Bush Library on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, due to open this spring. Presidential papers prior to the Hoover administration are housed at various locations, several in the Library of Congress.
Throughout our history, it was held that presidential papers and those of his administration were private property. In 1978, Congress enacted the Presidential Records Act, which specified that these papers are the property of the United States. Ann and I have had the opportunity to visit nine of the 13 libraries. Since some of the visits were brief and took place years ago, I don't recall that much about the libraries, but some of my impressions follow.
We arrived at Hyde Park, N.Y., too late to tour the Franklin Roosevelt Library-Museum. The thing that stood out at the Truman Library was the replica of the Oval Office with "The Buck Stops Here" marker on the president's desk. The Thomas Hart Benton mural captures your attention as you enter the library. The Eisenhower Library is located in Abilene, Kan., near the president's childhood home. Displayed here are many gifts Eisenhower received from world leaders and World War II memorabilia including some Hitler items. The Kennedy Library, located at the water's edge of Boston Harbor, displays a huge American flag hanging from the ceiling. Video clips of Kennedy news conferences show his wit. A time line of the achievements of his administration ended abruptly on Nov. 22, 1963.
At the Johnson Library on the campus of the University of Texas, I recall seeing a moon rock that had just been added to the collection. A touching video of an elderly Johnson appeared at a Civil Rights gathering just before his death caught the president popping a nitro glycerin pill.
The Carter Center Library and Museum is located in a gorgeous setting on a hill reportedly where General Sherman watched Atlanta burn during the Civil War. The library is a very active center with President Carter actively involved in numerous humanitarian efforts. While his administration was beset with problems, a case can be made that he is one of our greatest former presidents. When we were there at Easter, the center had an extensive exhibit on George Washington Carver.
Page 2 of 2 - The Reagan Center, the largest of the presidential libraries, is located on a hilltop in Simi Valley, Calif., across the mountains from Santa Barbara. To greet you on arrival is a huge statue of a smiling Ronald Reagan in western dress.
Since our visit, Air Force One of the Reagan era has been moved to the mountain to join Reagan, never to fly again. The George Herbert Walker Bush Presidential Library is located on the campus of Texas A&M University in College Station. It contains a section of the Berlin Wall, which came down during his administration. You can choose from an assortment of letters from President Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush to send to your friends or grandchildren.
The Clinton Library, "A Bridge to the Future," located on the banks of the Arkansas River in Little Rock, is the most expensive of the presidential libraries. The thing that impressed me most was the friendliness of the volunteers, many driving over 100 miles to get there. An unintended attraction that caught my attention were the raccoon tracks imprinted in the concrete. An attendant told me they considered obliterating the tracks, but decided to leave them — only in Arkansas.
Roy Shaver writes a weekly column for the Daily News.