the imaginative conservative logo

librariesIt seems that there is trouble in the liberal land of rainbows and butterflies, at least if you are a Democrat. What to do for poor President Barack Obama and what has become mandatory for every former president since Herbert Hoover: the establishment of a working, viable, and monstrous presidential library.

It is nearly impossible to imagine a presidential library for Calvin Coolidge or Warren G. Harding. The former would be a small and humble shop somewhere in New England; the latter would be a singles bar in a bad Cleveland neighborhood, featuring various gin and vodka concoctions. And, frankly, I would prefer either to a new presidential library.

But, no. We get stuck with the first major presidential library coming from that man who only found his integrity and principles after his presidency, Mr. Herbert Hoover.

Why the current unrest in the land of happy and dreamy wishes?

It seems both the University of Chicago and Columbia University want it, and the politicos in each are ticked. Who will have the most clout and cut through the most bureaucracy to get it? Here is the rundown of the situation from the Chicago Sun-Times.

Though I have thoroughly enjoyed my time in the libraries of Hoover, Truman, Eisenhower, and Lyndon Johnson, I find the entire idea a horrible precedent for a republic. We are, for all intents and purposes, building monuments to men, not to laws. Why do we build monuments for such men? Have they really done much but increase power over ordinary americans, stolen our sustenance from us, and sent our children to die in foreign wars? Well, to varying degrees, of course, they all have.

Could a Harry Truman stand next to a Leonidas, to a Cicero, to a Thomas More? How about a statue of a be-speckled Harry with two atomic bombs emerging from his homey fedora?

Let me offer something from literature. In his larger—quite immense, really—mythology, J.R.R. Tolkien argued that the golden age of men, the Second Age, fell because of its own hubris. its obscene monuments to its rulers, and its worship of death itself. This is not a new story, of course, but Tolkien puts it at its terrible best as he described the rise and fall of Numenor. Tolkien’s descriptions of the Second Age match very closely with the world of the 20th century, and it would be folly to dismiss the parallels. Though Tolkien despised allegory, he had no problem with applicability. The arrogance, the loss of faith in God (Iluvatar for Tolkien), and the monuments to men showed the inventive decadence of the entire race of men. When the hubris leads to an invasion of the land of the gods, Iluvatar wipes the island of Numenor off the face of the earth. Only a few escape to Middle-earth, the forebears of Aragorn.

About twenty years ago, I had the privilege of exploring the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, Kansas. It is hard not to like Ike, and I spent much of a day listening to oral histories of those in his administration. After leaving the library part of the Library, I walked over to the mausoleum that houses the dead bodies of Ike and Maimie. With almost no hyperbole, I can state that this visit proved to be one of the most bizarre and creepiest of my life. The architecture can only be described as a cross between Gene Roddenbery’s U.S.S. Enterprise and a Hyatt of the time. Sparkling, shimmering white walls decorated the place, a small river ran through it, and New Age music played. For a brief moment, I feared that I had entered into one of the more benign levels of Dante’s Hell. I shudder to think that Ike and Maimie will rest there as long as public funding keeps the place open. At some point, I assume architects inspired by Logan’s Run will build their attempted utopia there.

I have also had the chance to visit Lyndon Johnson’s library several times. Strangely enough, it is much less creepy than Ike’s, though Ike was certainly the better man. Instead, the LBJ library attempts to portray the power and warmonger as an average Texan, a man ready to tackle any problem, no matter the cost to his personal soul. One ignorant of the president’s history would come away from that library believing that Americans of African descent and the Vietnamese had a true savior in this man. The interpretation was so biased that it made me gag.

Not only a monument to a less-than-admirable man, but a monument built on lies.

So, what will the Obama library look like? How will my grandchildren interpret his legacy forty years from now? God only knows.

Let us put Numenor, Eisenhower, and LBJ aside for a moment. Let us assume these men just mentioned were some of the finest men ever to walk the face of the earth. Do they still deserve huge (massive, immense, gargantuan, ginormous) buildings, libraries, and parks dedicated to their memories?

Maybe in an empire, but certainly not in a republic.

It is worth remembering two things from the American founding. First, during the discussions of the presidency, Ben Franklin stated rather clearly—if somewhat naively—that men of virtue would always arise to assume executive leadership.

To bring the matter nearer home, have we not seen the greatest and most important of our offices, that of general of our armies, executed for eight years together, without the smallest salary, by a patriot whom I will not now offend by any other praise; and this, through fatigues and distresses, in common with the other brave men, his military friends and companions, and the constant anxieties peculiar to his station? And shall we doubt finding three or four men in all the United States with public spirit enough to bear sitting in peaceful council, for, perhaps, an equal term, merely to preside over our civil concerns, and see that our laws are duly executed? Sir, I have a better opinion of our country. I think we shall never be without a sufficient number of wise and good men to undertake and execute well and faithfully the office in question. Sir, the saving of the salaries, that may at first be proposed, is not an object with me. The subsequent mischiefs of proposing them are what I apprehend. And, therefore, it is that I move the amendment. If it be not seconded or accepted, I must be contented with the satisfaction of having delivered my opinion frankly and done my duty.

However great a man, Franklin could not have been more incorrect.

Second, it is worth thinking about Article II of the U.S. Constitution. It is a short one, especially compared to Article I. In its attempt to define the presidency, it offers far more restrictions than it does allowances and privileges. Electors of the Electoral College will choose a president for a four-year term. He shall be an American native and at least thirty-five years old. And, so far, I have only covered Section one of Article II. That is, I have covered 667 words of the total 1,380 of the full Article. Section two states that the president is “commander in chief” of the Army and Navy and the state militias, the latter only when called into service. He can also “grant reprieves and pardons.” The president can also make treaties with foreign powers, appoint members to the Supreme Court, but only with approval. Section three allows for public addresses and the execution of the laws. Finally, in Article Four, we find that the president, vice president, and all civil officers can be impeached and tried for treason, bribery, and all other high crimes and misdemeanors.

Interesting to ponder. Please note that the president has ABSOLUTELY NO right to make his own laws, executive orders, etc.

Well, I think can state rather certainly that the framers of the Constitution never envisioned the kinds of presidents we have “enjoyed” over the last century. It never envisioned them as kings or emperors, and it absolutely never envisioned them as lawmakers.

The presidential libraries are just, admittedly, one aspect of our political culture. But they symbolize so much: abuse, corruption, and decadence. For my money, a presidential library is treason, bribery, and a high crime and misdemeanor. A real republican leads because he is needed. When he is done, he does not ask for a monument. He throws down his sword, warns the people of tyranny, and goes back to his farm.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

Print Friendly
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
3 replies to this post
  1. My thoughts exactly, Mr. Birzer. Your essay brought to mind a chapter in Robert Nisbet’s book The Twilight of Authority where he wrote of what he called Democratic Royalism. He writes, “Still another sign of the moribundity of the political community and of the larger crisis of authority in society is the astonishing growth during the past several decades of what can only be called democratic royalism. I refer to the presidency and the White House as repositories of a pomp, power, and splendor better known in the European monarchies which came into being during the Renaissance than in the kind of republic the Founding Fathers had in mind.” He continues to speak of the “first care” of royalty to be that of “being constantly visible, and naturally in the best and most contrived light for the people.”

    Apparently even when gone our most recent presidents must remain visible to us in the most “contrived light;” yes even LBJ, and dare we say, WJC.

  2. President Harding doesn’t have a Library, but his tomb in Marion, Ohio, is quite large and impressive; it was financed by contributions from the nation’s schoolchildren. I visited the tomb in 1970, and the Hardings’ house, also in Marion. The thing I remember about the little museum behind the house is its display of some of the president’s hand-rolled cigarettes, on which appear his gold monogram, WGH.

Please leave a thoughtful, civil, and constructive comment: