Temples of Ego
By Patrick F. Cannon
I find it amusing that former President Obama is going to put part of his Chicago presidential library (or center, or whatever they call them these days) on actual park land, when George Lukas was prevented from building his museum on land that has long been a paved parking lot, and was never part of the park system.
As a child, I lived across the street from Jackson Park and still know it well. Until recently, I went regularly to Hyde Park and drove on Cornell Drive, which President Obama would like to close and make part of his “campus.” As a former resident of Hyde Park himself, he must be aware of how this closing will affect local traffic, especially during rush hours. But the needs of presidential ego must be served, right?
The proponents of the center tout its positive effects on the neighborhoods adjacent to it. Economic development and jobs for locals must inevitably follow, they claim. But are there not other areas of the city even needier? As someone who knows the city better than most, I can tell you that there are vast empty areas on the west and south sides once filled with homes and factories that need economic development just as much and perhaps more than Hyde Park and Woodlawn.
Simply put, I believe the former President doesn’t find them as visually attractive as Jackson Park, designed as it was by Frederick Law Olmstead, creator of New York’s Central Park. Nor does it hurt that the Museum of Science and Industry will be right down the street, providing the basis for another Chicago “museum campus.” (As a matter of interest, I note that Metra is already planning to increase service to its Hyde Park stations, at the expense of other south side lines.)
I don’t mean to pick on President Obama. He is just the latest in a long line of United States’ presidents who have sought to put the best possible light on their terms of office by telling the story themselves. From relatively modest beginnings with Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, the “centers” have become increasingly more elaborate and expensive. To be fair, they have largely been built with private funds; but to be honest, most of the money for them was raised before the subject left office. You may read into that what you will (see the Clintons especially).
Because they have become repositories of the President’s official papers, they are technically the property of the citizens of the United States, so most of the cost of their operation is paid by us through the National Archives. This amounts to about $80 million per year, not a huge amount by current standards, but as the legendary Senator Everett Dirksen once said “a billion here and a billion there and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.”
In my opinion, presidential papers should all be in the same place, where their cataloging and availability would be consistent and more available to scholars. If the former presidents then want to build temples to their ego, let them have at it. To be honest, I can’t wait to see what the current occupant might have in mind.
Copyright 2017, Patrick F. Cannon