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MAN BITES TOWN

$21-MILLION SALUTES : Drop by a Presidential Library and You'll Witness History in the Remaking

May 05, 1991|Harry Shearer

The list of original American contributions to world culture is forever being unfairly shortened. Yes, jazz is always mentioned, and sometimes gospel music and the musical comedy sneak in. But what about the TV commercial, sports-team mascots and, most American of all, the presidential library?

In no other democracy does the previous tenant in a high office get to sequester his papers in a personal pavilion. Even here, Presidents as great as Lincoln, and as Reaganesque as Harding, have had to confront history from the relative anonymity of the stacks at the National Archives until someone--was it the political groundskeepers of the Kennedy legend?--decided that, as Pharaohs needed pyramids, Presidents needed libraries.

These institutions perform more helpful services than a Boy Scout in a tornado. They add luster to the reputations of their namesakes by illuminating presidential achievements in the most golden possible glow. They bring needed visitors and--what a nutty surprise!--tax revenues to the obscure little towns from which Presidents insist on springing. And they are an invaluable aid to scholars, gathering in one location all of the revealing documents that are to be kept secret for 50 years.

I'm a fan of presidential libraries. Maybe it comes naturally to someone who grew up reading the paper and going to auto shows--presidential libraries combine the best of both. At the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library in Austin, Tex., you can stand behind a velvet rope and gaze at a replica of the Oval Office the way LBJ arranged it. And you get to perceive it from his larger-than-life perspective because it's seven-eighths actual size.

Not even the Gerald R. Ford Library has been sufficient motivation to get me to Grand Rapids, Mich., but I have savored the austerity of the Jimmy Carter Library in Atlanta, the first to offer visitors the chance to ask pre-selected questions to which the former President delivers videotaped answers. It's like a news conference where the President's men got to write both sides.

That technology, along with the latest refinements in life-size wax-museum statuary, has been harnessed to make the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace a jewel in the nation's crown of monuments to under-appreciated chief executives. The first presidential library built with private funds, the Nixonplex is admirably free of niggling objectivity.

For example, there's a mammoth project under way in the Yorba Linda institution to give new names to well-known events among Nixon's stations of the double-cross. The Checkers speech is now "The Fund Crisis Speech." The Kennedy-Nixon debates become "The Nixon-Kennedy Debates": In the videotape, Nixon, defying media-manipulated memory, speaks at length while Kennedy just shifts his weight silently at the podium. They couldn't think of another name for Watergate, but the patient explanations that interrupt the one Oval Office tape provided ("Here, the President is telling the head of the FBI to go ahead with his thorough investigation . . .") are well worth a drive down the 5.

Obviously, I can't wait for the Reagan library in Simi Valley to open this year. Will it boast the world's largest collection of 3-by-5 cards? A tape of the show-business stories with which he regaled Oval Office visitors? Will his daily schedule be available for inspection, or, like so many of his papers, is it classified until everyone now alive is dead?

Since Reagan's shrine, like Nixon's, is being financed by well-heeled friends, the principle of walking through, not history, but the presidential mind is now firmly established. And, as campaigning has become such a soft-focus lens through which to view the putative qualities of the people who want to lead us, shouldn't we require would-be Presidents to build their libraries before being elected? They're raising obscene amounts of money anyway; what's another $20 million or so? This way, we'd get a couple of years to walk through the place, get acquainted with their spin on things, see which life-size replicas of world leaders they put life-size replicas of themselves among. Then maybe we'd be ready to give them the ability to screw up our children's lives.

In the meantime, presidential libraries are a cultural invention for which all Americans should feel grateful. In the current climate, they're the only libraries you can count on to be open.

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