I admit that I like presidential libraries and museums. There are twelve of them in all and I have now visited nine. The only ones I have not visited are those of Lyndon B. Johnson, John F. Kennedy and George H. W. Bush. Someday I hope to take in these three remaining historical sites since they remain places to see on my personal “bucket list.”
The newest presidential library to open is situated near the Arkansas River in downtown Little Rock. I was there in July to attend a family reunion. Since I was only five minutes from the Clinton Library I decided to take in this very interesting place on a warm Saturday afternoon. It was well worth my time. I will explain why.
First, you must understand (if you have or have not been to visit any of these museums) that the storyline told in such places is consistently positive. These places are meant to celebrate the life and accomplishments of one president. In fact, they are financed by the former president’s efforts to raise the money and then built according to their ultimate wish. The exception to this is found in the older museums of presidents like Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt, though I think Hoover did have a bit to do with his library in Iowa. The modern presidents, from Truman on, have all had a some direct role in the process of establishing and developing their library.
Second, the historical accounts given in these museums is sound but no one will find serious critical analysis in any of the museums. The perspective of the story is one that supports the goals and positive outcomes of the particular president. I suppose that is just as you would expect.
Third, the Clinton Library & Museum does tell the Clinton story in an extremely positive way. As I toured and read the various accounts of the Clinton years, between 1992-2000, I was struck by how much I had forgotten, especially the good things I had overlooked because I was not a huge Clinton supporter. I was reminded again of how one’s perspective truly colors their way of reading history regardless of their desire for objectivity. When it comes to Bill Clinton few of us are unbiased. We either liked him or despised him. Critics of Clinton refer to the Clinton Presidential Library as a two-wide trailer. You can see why this is said if you look at the building itself with a disdain for the man but the intended slam here is quite obvious. As such modern buildings go it is actually well-done.
Fourth, there is a mock oval office and cabinet meeting room at the Clinton Library. (These exist at other libraries as well.) These rooms are interesting since they give you a sense of what the president valued in his working environment. Clinton had a rock from the moon on the table between the two sofas in his oval office. He also had photos of the presidents he most admired, including one Republican, Teddy Roosevelt.
Each year of the Clinton era is recounted in sections and nicely laid out so that you can follow the responses of the White House in that particular period. As I went from section-to-section I realized how many things Clinton did that I actually admired. My guess is that historians will not see him as one of our worst presidents, nor as one of our best. His was not, in spite of the impeachment saga, a “failed presidency.” His historical record will thus be seen as genuinely mixed but with a lot of positives that his enemies forget. The library, of course, would have you believe that it was a genuinely positive story throughout and thus he was one of the best presidents ever. But then this is common to these libraries. You do not visit them to stop your study of American history but to supplement it. These places are clearly a part of Americana and should be visited for this reason if no other.
What about the impeachment story? The perspective taken is that this was a partisan action. In almost every sense it turned out to be that in the end. Almost nothing is said about Clinton’s moral failures except that he was distracted by these mistakes. Interestingly, the same perspective is taken at the Nixon Library regarding Watergate, though there is more content to be discovered in the presentation at the Nixon Library.
Like this man or not my visit to the Clinton Library was genuinely enjoyable. I realized again that our presidents are not the major figures in American history when all is said or done. A few have made a huge difference, such as Washington, Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and F.D.R. We like to make them all the central figures in our nation’s history but they are not nearly as important as we may think when all is said and done. Martin Luther King, Jr. was, to cite one example of my point, far more important than any of our recent presidents, or so I have come to think. And don’t forget that he was a minister!
If you ever get to Little Rock see the Clinton Library. A few hours there will give you some insights and impressions that you might not be inclined to have without a visit. I do not count myself as a Clinton hater nor a Clinton supporter. I think that too much of the Christian church focused far too intensely on what they despised about Bill Clinton than about what his presidency actually meant to the nation in the long run. A major part of the historical record can be discovered at the Clinton Library thus I found the visit well worth my time.