A Public Self

While the imminent possibility of the end of the Obama presidency was not widely welcome on the South Side, it raised another: namely, the chance to host a presidential library.

Since election night 2008, Hyde Park has been widely considered the favored location for Obama’s presidential library. The University of Chicago is eager to point out its connections to the candidate and his family. Before the Obamas moved to the White House, Barack lectured at the UofC Law School for twelve years, Michelle served as an administrator at the hospital, and their children attended the Laboratory Schools. There’s even an obama.uchicago.edu.

However, the UofC has remained largely mum on the subject of a presidential library. In an interview with Bloomberg in October of 2009, UofC president Robert Zimmer kept his cards close to his vest: “Until the president really wants to talk about it, we really feel more specific questions are premature.” Assumedly these “more specific questions” were those pertaining to the actual construction and content of the library, including its precise location. It seemed that at the time, the University had, at the least, a nascent interest in playing host to a library of presidential proportions.

In late September of this year, the 4th Ward, which spans Bronzeville, Kenwood, Oakland, and northern Hyde Park, held a town hall meeting to brainstorm neighborhood development plans. Attendees were divided into small groups to propose and discuss proposals. Reconvening after discussion, almost all of the groups suggested a presidential library.

The South Side has some competition. In Obama’s home state of Hawaii, the state legislature passed a formal resolution in 2010 to encourage the construction of a presidential library in their state. The University of Hawaii has even reached out to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and met with the administrative staffs of other presidential libraries.

Much remained quiet on the library front until June of this year. As the presidential campaigns kicked their riotous gallop across the country into derby mode, the Sun-Times reported the opposition of UofC Professor of Political Science Charles Lipson to a library on the university campus. Citing other presidential libraries, including the Reagan library in California and the Kennedy library in Boston, Lipson argued that such a move would politicize the campus atmosphere and lead to an imbalance of liberal visitors, including speakers, and of intellectual resources, all thereby dissuading visitors of alternative political persuasions. In response to Lipson’s concerns, a committee was appointed to facilitate discussion of the subject among faculty.

The state of Hawaii was quick to follow up. In July, Politico reported that the West Oahu campus of the University of Hawaii and state-owned land in Honolulu were the two major sites being considered in the Aloha State. Said Reed Dasenbrock, vice chancellor of academic affairs at the University of Hawaii-Manoa, “It’s really a question of how you frame the narrative of who Obama is and what his presidency is…we think he’s more interestingly framed as being a child of Hawaii: multiracial, pluralistic, global, and that’s our story.”

Obama’s narrative isn’t viewed the same everywhere. For some, his life is a closing chapter in the civil rights movement. For those authors, Chicago’s South Side offers the more appropriate home. But it seems strange that the seekers of the library desire to appropriate and incorporate Obama’s story.

Presidential libraries, in bearing the name of an individual, historicize their namesake, framing the events within a four- or eight-year period as biography. But the founding purpose of a presidential library is one of preservation and research. The library serves primarily as a space to keep the physical records of a political tenure.

The first presidential library was conceived in 1939, relatively shortly after Franklin Delano Roosevelt established the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in 1934. Roosevelt assembled private funds to construct his namesake library and museum in his hometown of Hyde Park, New York, then handed over both the library and museum to the NARA for management.

It soon became a tradition after completing one’s time in the Oval Office to establish a foundation that in turn would raise funds to build a library and museum. After construction, both would be handed over to the NARA, which would supervise operations. In 2008, the federal government requested that the NARA prepare a report detailing alternative models for presidential libraries, with the aim of reducing the cost to the federal government and improving access to records. Since an amendment to the Presidential Libraries Act in 1986, an endowment from the president’s foundation has been required to offset operational costs. Initially, the value of the endowment was 20 percent of the cost of a facility under 70,000 square feet; facilities bigger than this required a progressively higher endowment. Subsequent legislation provided for a steadily increasing endowment: for an Obama library, the endowment would be worth 60 percent of the cost of the library and museum facility.

On the South Side, storefronts from Pilsen to Kenwood to South Shore display Obama t-shirts, posters, baseball caps, buttons, and the kinds of athletic jackets favored by the orthopedic shoe set. The City of Chicago advertises an Obama-focused “professionally narrated downloadable walking tour” of downtown, Hyde Park and Kenwood for 10 dollars, guiding patrons in the pieced-together footsteps of the commander-in-chief. A plaque nestled in a flowerbed at 53rd Street and Dorchester Avenue commemorates the spot of Mr. and Mrs. Obama’s first kiss.

However, there is also a less tangible component to the claim, that of pride of place. Is the South Side eager to embrace Obama as a native son because it affirms our understanding of the South Side as a meaningful place to be, to work, to live, to invest in? Does it justify our own lives here if somebody who went on to make something of himself, to, in the eyes of many, embody the essence of the American Dream, built himself on our streets and in our community centers? The hullabaloo over Obama’s library is an opportunity to revisit the idea that a place can be enriched or validated by the past presence of a seminal figure in American history, politics, and social life.

Constructing a presidential library can be read as an act of self-promotion on the part of the president, but recent events suggest that the UofC, the City of Chicago and the state of Hawaii are pursuing the cause as a separate act of self-promotion. The presidential library has become a space where two institutions–an individual and a place–can engage in a kind of mutually beneficial partnership, a symbiosis with a keen eye on the creation and maintenance of a legacy.

What seems more elusive, really, is why the stakes are so high for some–Hawaiians, South Siders, the University of Chicago. Are the bids for a presidential library all that different from the sales techniques of stores that brand themselves as Obama’s Merchandise Headquarters? Is it truly a matter of pride, or is it merely–perhaps, distinctly American–opportunism?

Lately it seems that people are quick to frame cultural institutions as catalysts for economic development. The possibility of the presidential library brought up at the 4th Ward meeting in September emerged in the context of possible development projects–other ideas included a casino, a STEM high school, and the systematic promotion of black-owned businesses. The institution may voice lofty goals of promoting scholarship and understanding of the presidential office, useful for future governors and scholars, but many seem hopeful about the concomitant potential of the libraries–as the origin spores of restaurants, hotels, and nightlife.

What remains to be seen, and what is most important in actualizing the popular library dream, is what President Obama himself thinks of the notion. In the 2009 Bloomberg article, a close friend of Obama’s, Eric Whitaker, was quoted as saying that at the time of his inauguration Obama was lukewarm on the subject of a library in the style of presidential libraries past. However, he favorably mentioned something along the lines of the Carter Center in Atlanta. The center is Jimmy Carter’s nonprofit nonpartisan organization, housed nearby the Carter Library and Museum, in partnership with Emory University. It’s best known for supporting global health and peace projects.  Whitaker hinted at the “numerous tracts of vacant property available on the city’s south side,” in the words of Bloomberg. The comment has prompted a guessing-game within that which characterizes the national contention: perhaps Washington Park, neighbor to the UofC campus? Roseland, where Obama organized with the Developing Communities project in the late eighties? South Shore, where the Obamas held their wedding reception?  While it is difficult to deny the self-promotional aspect of presidential foundations and libraries, the practice of putting a high-profile name to good use deserves more thoughtful criticism.

Now that the Obama presidency has a definite ending date four years in the future, it seems that the library lobby will subside, if only temporarily. After a long campaign season, the president must return to concerns about an impending ‘fiscal cliff,’ a destabilized Middle East, and a hostile House of Representatives. For the White House, it is likely that the issue of a presidential library has been bracketed and pushed down the priority list. In the meantime, folks from Honolulu to Hyde Park will be holding their breath.