Of Politics and Libraries
The dust-up over former president Clinton's last-minute pardons obscured the poetry of the action. By focusing on suspected monetary connections between the pardons and fund-raising for Clinton's library, the media missed a subtler point hidden beneath the pardons' surface. It lost the opportunity to see at the end of his administration something overlooked at the beginning: that for Clinton, power is and always has been at odds with principles of openness. Power is like air to presidents, but libraries breathe openness.
The problem with the pardons went beyond the appearance that some of them may have been bought with contributions, including some to the library fund. More disturbing was that the president's power had been exercised so privately, so far outside the processes established by this government, so close to his departure from office. It was the imperiousness of the act that sent Clinton's poll numbers--which had weathered so much else--into the approval-ratings basement.
But for all the tsk-tsking that followed, none of the pundits latched onto the irony that, of all the words in our language, "library" would have ever become part of the brouhaha. It's strange to hear that word linked to politics of any sort, beyond the recurrent flaps about censorship. But the fact that a rogue trader received a pardon while his ex-wife was funneling money to help build Clinton's monument reveals a truth about this remarkable politician that, for too long, librarians, historians, reporters and teachers have allowed to go unchallenged. We wanted to think of this forty-second president as a library kind of guy. That thought squeezed out the possibility that he might be--instead or also--a sleazy-pardons kind of guy. But the two guys, it turns out, are the same. Clinton, the man of power, has never been comfortable with notions of public access to the mechanisms of that power. But that is what libraries are about--particularly, one would think, presidential libraries.
For me, seeing the coupling of Clinton, the secret pardoner, with Clinton, the library builder, marks the completion of a circle. As a reporter who's worked in Arkansas since Clinton was the state's attorney general, I've had a long time to observe him. His recent high-handedness regarding the pardons was prefigured long ago, in another decision that happened to involve a Little Rock library. The stage was set years before. In 1980, after then Gov. Clinton lost his bid for a second two-year term, he deposited the records from his first administration in the archives of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. As the world knows, he quickly regained the office and served as governor for another ten years. When he decided to run for president, however, he did not add the records from those ten years to the archives at UALR. Instead, a decade's worth of documents, written and electronic, as well as photographs and other historic materials from his administration were hauled out of the state capitol to an undisclosed location.
And the records from his first term, the ones that already had been placed in the university archives? They too were whisked away to the secret storage, where they remained, with the other records, unavailable to the citizens of Arkansas, to reporters and historians, and to anyone else who was interested in researching this emerging historical figure. A few years ago, when I asked to see the collection, Clinton's former chief of staff, Betsey Wright, told me that it was only being opened to investigators who came armed with subpoenas.
Presidents own the records from their administrations, and so do Arkansas governors. But as governors go, that policy is the exception. Forty-five states order their governors' records to be part of the public domain. Only in Arkansas, Iowa, Maryland, Rhode Island, and South Dakota could Clinton have kept his records as governor closed. He didn't have to, but he did. I had hoped he wouldn't exercise the option that Arkansas's lax official records law gave him. I had hoped that he would donate his sizeable and invaluable archive to one of the state's universities. I wanted to believe that this smart and educated politician would donate this record to the citizens who had elected him--and whose taxes had paid for it. But Clinton was not about to chance any such openness. And that reluctance continued. During his years as president, Clinton faced numerous demands for records. He responded with partial disclosures, with lengthy delays, and with claims of executive privilege.
But now that he's out of office, the history of his presidency is to be collected in a library. In Little Rock, the building of that repository is considered a very big civic deal. The city has tied itself into legal knots to pay for the library site. A huge building has been refitted to hold the presidential materials while the library is under construction. Part of the street that runs to the library has been renamed for the former president. The architect has presented drawings of how the library will look, and planners have explained how it will help groom our future leaders.
But for all that, we have heard little--almost nothing, actually--about what the library will hold. And no one's asking the delicate questions. But there are some that should be asked. Will we be able to find the records from Clinton's years as governor there? And what about records he fought not to disclose during his White House years? At this point, we don't know.
What we do know is that the William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Library will be a monument to power. As for the chance that it will share the openness and completeness that are the hallmarks of all great collections--the record so far weighs against it.
(photo by Kathie George)