Mineola-native Anthony Clark is something of an expert on presidential libraries. After all, he’s been to 12 of them, and even worked in Congress on the subcommittee that oversees them.
After serving a six-month stint on Capitol Hill from 2000-01 as a systems administrator and legislative correspondent, writing and compiling mass mailings, the Chaminade High School graduate is now embarking on a new project for a book on presidential libraries, how they are run and their impact through the crowd-funding site Kickstarter, which he says he is using because his publisher wanted to demonstrate the popularity with a successful online campaign.
The initial goal was to raise $7,500, but was successfully funded with $8,870 as of the Oct. 1 deadline.
Clark, who has also written for Salon.com, estimates that the 14-chapter, 325 page book will be finished by either the end of 2013 or January/ Feb. 2014 and published in spring/ summer of 2014.
The son of Thomas Clark, proprietor of Rainbow Pest Control, after graduating Chaminade in 1984, Clark went to NYU and Catholic U where he met his then-wife, a Navy doctor, moving around from Puerto Rico to North Carolina and Virginia. The couple split up at about the same time he started the project in 2003 when he was in a graduate political action science class at Apple Action State University in North Carolina.
“We were discussing campaigns and my professor showed me a clip, the classic clip, from Bill Clinton’s 1996 campaign... and he says ‘this is my last campaign’ and I immediately thought ‘no, that’s not your last campaign, your last campaign is going to be when you build your library and you try to tell your story your way’,” Clark said. “And so I wrote my term paper called ‘The Last Campaign’ and my professor said ‘look, this is a book, you have to make this into a book’.”
Clark then used his RV to visit all the current presidential libraries from Hoover to Clinton and returned to DC to do research before a second trip to presidential libraries.
“I spent about a month in all 12 of them,” he said, noting his own battles with the national archives because they wouldn’t allow access to records about the relationship between themselves and the various presidential libraries.
“They gave me the runaround,” he said. “First they said they didn’t have them, then they said that they had them but I couldn’t see them because they weren’t processed. But it took a year of them stalling and then I started doing FOIL requests. They were really adversarial about it, they really didn’t want me to see what was on it.”
As of 2013, there are currently 13 total presidential libraries: Hoover, FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Clinton and George W. Bush. A current intrigue is whether President Obama’s library will either be in Chicago or Hawaii.
Due to the fallout from the Watergate scandal, Congress passed the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act in 1974, stating that Nixon could not have access to his own records and denying that any records be taken out of Washington except under certain conditions. The Presidential Records Act declared that all presidential records created after Jan. 20, 1981 belong to the people of the United States, and not to the presidents personally. Before that, papers were considered private documents of the presidents.
According to Clark, site selection of a library brings millions to its local economy in terms of construction, jobs and tourism. Former president George W. Bush raised $500 million for his library, more than all previous 12 combined.
“The site selection is the money and the politics,” Clark said, noting various instances where presidents have opened the museum half of the library, while the records portion is typically understaffed with only a handful of people to catalog the documents and items. As an example, former president Clinton’s library had 80 million pieces of paper in addition to photos, film, electronic data, video, audio tapes. Clark estimated that the full extent of records from the Regan, Clinton and both Bushes won’t be available for 100 years.
“Initially the goal of presidential libraries was (Franklin) Roosevelt wanted to preserve his records and his personal collection of items so he donated land on his property, he built this building and he put a couple of rooms in for curiosities for people to come see but the goal was the record of the New Deal, the record of WWII, this was going to be preserved forever so that historians and researches could come in and see decisions that were made, see the documents, even the pre-decisional stuff, the memos, the reports,” Clark said. “But now they’ve become these huge dignified monuments to the presidents and the records are an afterthought; we keep them, but we don’t process them quickly, we only have a handful of people processing these things and they have to be looked at for national security and privacy and other restrictions so it’s going to take 100 years or more to see the records.”
Usually a president raises private funds to build his library to standards set by both the law and the national archives, then hands it over to the federal government to run as a donation. According to Clark, what used to happen is an organization raised those funds and then went out of business once the building was complete.
“But then Truman wanted to have conferences at his library, he wanted to have researchers and historians come and report on his presidency and other presidencies so the institute that was founded to build his library continued on and raised money from a moderate publication program,” Clark said, “but as time went on, former presidents and their families saw this as a way to keep the flame alive and not trust the government to be the only people influencing the museum and what gets released in the records.”
Inequality also exists between libraries both in terms of fundraising and political platforms. As an example, Clark said that the Eisenhower library tries to raise about $400,000 per year and donates it to the national archives as opposed to the more modern presidential libraries, such as the Reagan one, which is used for political purposes. Clark cited former New York City Mayor Rudy Guliani’s presidential campaign announcement as one such example at the Reagan library “because that’s the place where you get accepted or rejected as a Republican candidate. You’d never be able to see that at the Smithsonian.”
Clark sees the mixing of the private foundations and the federal government as a problem with the libraries in terms of a conflict of interest, especially as if the foundation has funds, it tends to renovate the library every 10-15 years, adding new technology, displays, etc. and can be used to skew history.
“I think we have two ways to go which would be an improvement and a cost savings; first way to go is to say ‘if the national archives runs the presidential library and the museum.. then they should be the one who run it’,” he said. “So basically the government is putting its stamp of approval on what’s actually a Democratic or a Republican partisan telling of history. For example, Bill Clinton does mention Monica Lewinsky in his presidential library but the exhibit is called ‘The Republican Fight for Power.’ he says ‘yeah, I had a personal failing but they key thing about this is that they tried to get me out of the Presidency’ and Reagan doesn’t deal with Iran-Contra.”
There are also inaccuracies that have been reported at the George W. Bush library.
“I read an article by a New Orleans reporter just a couple days ago – he was heavily involved in covering Katrina – he went to the Bush library and saw it and said ‘that’s not at all what happened, I don’t recognize what they’re talking about, they’re saying things that weren’t true, they’re forgetting things’; if he’s going to talk about Katrina like that he’s certainly going to talk about Iraq (the same).”
Another reason Clark is using Kickstarter is to help fund his travel to the libraries because he stopped for four years while working on Capitol Hill and four libraries underwent major renovations, including Nixon’s where they discarded the Watergate exhibit written by Nixon and replaced it with new one written by Federal government and the George W. Bush library also opened.
Ironically, Clark holds up Nixon as both an example on how libraries should and should not be run. The former president purchased his boyhood home in California and some surrounding houses, building his library on nine acres of land – paltry compared to other libraries. The Nixon library was run with the former president’s own fundraising efforts but then deteriorated over 17 years as he couldn’t raise sufficient funds. In 2004 the library accepted a deal for it to become part of the presidential library system on the condition that papers be moved from Washington to California but that the Nixon foundation also give up control of the archives and the museum.
The Presidential Libraries Act Amendments of 1986 restrict the size to 70,000 sq. ft. for donated buildings and forcing the foundations to pay an endowment to defray cost of operation – 20 percent of the cost of the entire building. While the library can exceed the square footage requirement, an increasingly large endowment must be paid.
Clark says that the George H. W. Bush library skirted the law by not donating the whole building to the federal government, but only 69,999 sq. ft. Yet the government still had to operate the whole building and other part of building is not subject to the law.
Presidential libraries also do not escape scandal as well. A number of reforms that Clark has pushed for at the libraries has been implemented as in the past, an employee could work for the national archives – a government job – and also be executive director of library, a private organization that raises money and uses facility politically, such was the case at both the Truman and Reagan libraries.
“I thought that was completely inappropriate,” Clark said, noting the employees gave up private jobs and kept public jobs.
According to Clark, in another instance of controversy, Don Wilson, an archivist, gave about 5,000 computer tapes on Iran-Contra to the George H. W. Bush foundation. Two weeks later, the archivist resigned and it was announced that Wilson was the executive director of the Bush library foundation.
“My proudest part about this book is that you’ll read a lot of books that are based upon interviews of people... the book is based upon archival research at each presidential library; I have the documents, I have the memos,” Clark said, “and it underscores the importance of using the record that are in the presidential library to tell history.”