President Obama doesn’t leave office until January of 2017, but already the competition has begun for the right to host his presidential library and museum.
A new foundation has been set up to raise money and to begin the site selection process, and there are already bids in the works from Chicago, Honolulu and elsewhere.
A Tradition Of Archives
Professor Richard Cox of the University of Pittsburgh has studied the history of U.S. presidential libraries. The newest, the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas, opened just last year, but the very first was Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s. Prior to FDR, Cox says, there was no formal mechanism for the preservation of presidential papers.
“He had this idea of having his presidential records [and] archives moved to his estate in Hyde Park in New York,” Cox says. “One of the ideas being that he could have National Archives staff and others process and inventory his records that he could use for his memoirs and whatever else he was planning to do in his retirement.”
Since then, every president has had a library. Most are in the state the president was born in, or in a place they considered home. Each houses the presidential archive and papers, attracting both scholars and tourists.
Each presidential library reflects its namesake. The most recent addition, George W. Bush’s, is more conservative in design; Bill Clinton’s in Little Rock is a modernist, glass structure.
The 2004 Clinton library dedication also veered far from tradition. In the midst of a rainstorm, U2’s Bono and The Edge performed an impromptu Beatles tune for the four presidents sitting nearby under umbrellas.
Finding A Home For Obama’s Library
Obama’s political roots are pure Chicago; it’s the first lady’s hometown and where his children were born. He also based his presidential campaigns there.
A long-time, very close friend of the president, Chicago businessman Marty Nesbitt, is a director of the new Barack H. Obama Foundation in charge of the library planning process. Conventional wisdom holds that Chicago is the heavy favorite, but Nesbitt stresses that the decision rests with the president.
“We want to give every interested party a fair shot at it, and each of these proposals will be evaluated on their merit,” Nesbitt says. “So at this point, I don’t think any city, site, location, state [or] institution has any advantage over another.”
Don’t tell Hawaii that Chicago has the inside track. The Aloha state is where Obama was born, were he vacations and a place he loves very much. Hawaiians love him too.
“The state of Hawaii has set aside land in an area called K’aka ako,” says Hawaii’s Sen. Brian Schatz. “It is beautiful waterfront property and we think there couldn’t be a more spectacular and appropriate location should the president want to locate this in the state of Hawaii.”
Another serious bid could come from Columbia University in New York City, where Obama was a student.
A decision on a site will come early next year, and look for the Obama Presidential Library dedication ceremony sometime around the year 2020.