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NIXON LIBRARY : THE OTHERS : Critics Label Libraries as Shrines by the Presidents, for the Presidents

July 17, 1990|ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

AUSTIN, Tex. — Carolyn Husbands was never keen on LBJ. But then she spent one sweltering afternoon here visiting the Lyndon Baines Johnson presidential library.

From the moment she crossed the threshold of the gleaming white building perched on a grassy knoll at the edge of the University of Texas campus, Husbands sensed her old impressions beginning to erode.

First there was the short biographical film on the late President's life, a heart-tugging presentation that had Husbands dabbing at tears. Then the resident of Jackson, Miss., strolled the museum corridors and gazed at the carefully preserved documents and artifacts chronicling Johnson's rise from poverty in the Texas Hill Country to the Oval Office.

Finally, she mounted a wide marble staircase to the "Great Hall," a lofty atrium featuring a glass wall exposing floor upon floor of bookshelves, each holding scarlet boxes with gold presidential seals packed with more than 35 million letters, memos and other weighty documents of the Johnson Administration.

It was a bit overwhelming.

"I feel better about him after seeing all this," Husbands confided as she wandered through the library, soaking in the artfully crafted story of the nation's 36th President. "I know this accentuated the positive, but it changed my feelings."

Accentuating the positive, it seems, is something presidential libraries do rather well. And now another is joining the fold. Along with the fanfare of the Richard M. Nixon presidential library grand opening comes criticism that the privately operated, $21-million complex in Yorba Linda will present a one-sided glorification of a President best known for his resignation in the midst of the Watergate scandal.

Nixon's is not the first presidential library to suffer such barbs. From the Eastern Seaboard to the cornfields of Iowa, presidential libraries have long been under attack by those who see them as little more than shrines to the select few who have held the reins of power in America.

The Johnson library has been dubbed a "Pharaoh's monument," while John F. Kennedy's library overlooking Dorchester Bay has been criticized for providing too much Camelot and not enough substance about that Administration's darker days. Some wags, meanwhile, note that Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower were so smitten by their respective libraries that both chose to be buried on the grounds.

To fans, presidential libraries represent a fitting tribute to America's leaders, a lasting record of their lives and their administrations.

But critics--among them politicians and scholars of all stripes--argue that the museum displays contained in the eight presidential libraries run by the the National Archives offer a glorified picture of their namesakes, a portrayal that robs visitors of a balanced perspective on history.

"It's always true that there's a certain amount of distortion in the museums," said Stephen E. Ambrose, a political historian from the University of New Orleans and author of two volumes of biography on Nixon. "They always glorify the President. I'm sure (the Nixon library) won't be any exception."

Even some partisans agree that a presidential library would be hard pressed to offer a portrait that is anything but celebratory.

"There's an obvious tendency to think in shrinelike terms when you begin one of these," said Harry Middleton, director of the Johnson library and a former speech writer for Nixon's predecessor. "But that kind of thinking flattens after a while, and very likely the death of the President whose name adorns the building has something to do with it."

From the day in 1939 that Franklin D. Roosevelt laid the cornerstone for his library in the Upstate New York community of Hyde Park, presidential libraries have been at the center of a tussle over their role as emblems of power in a democratic nation.

Before Roosevelt, Presidents routinely removed their papers upon leaving office, and their preservation was largely a matter of luck. The bulk of George Washington's papers, for instance, were recovered by the government only after a relative sold them to the State Department between 1834 and 1849 for a then-lordly sum of $55,000.

History suffered as the papers were cut up by autograph collectors, mutilated by rats, scattered about the countryside, burned in barns or carted off by marauding troops. The single exception was Rutherford B. Hayes, for whom a museum and archives were established in Ohio to preserve his presidential papers and celebrate his achievements.

After the turn of the century, several Presidents began depositing their papers in the Library of Congress. But it was not until Roosevelt that the concept of a presidential library run by the National Archives sprang to life. In 1955, Congress passed the Presidential Libraries Act to allow other Presidents to follow Roosevelt's example.

Each one did just that, but not without difficulties.

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