Reeder: No money, need for Obama library

SPRINGFIELD – This month, House Speaker Mike Madigan announced legislation to offer money for the construction of a Barack Obama Presidential Library somewhere in Chicago.

Illinois, New York and Hawaii are vying to be the home of the library. Illinois, of course, is his adoptive state, Hawaii his home state and New York City is where he did his undergraduate studies. Every president since Herbert Hoover has been the beneficiary of one of these taxpayer-supported institutions run by the National Archives. But as the decades have marched on, they have progressively become more grandiose. For example, George W. Bush opened his presidential library last year in Dallas at a cost of $300 million.

And Madigan wants Illinois to pledge $100 million toward the construction of Obama’s library. The state can’t pay its bills on time, pensions are grossly underfunded, basic state services are being cut and he wants to spend $100 million to build a shrine to a politician?

Come on, Mike. Years ago, I visited Lyndon Baines Johnson’s library in Austin, Texas. The exhibits said little about the man’s flawed foreign policy decisions in Vietnam or the societal problems that have come from his expansion of the welfare state. Richard Nixon’s library has been criticized for downplaying Watergate. Bill Clinton’s library barely mentions Monica Lewinsky. We shouldn’t be surprised. These facilities have increasingly become tabernacles glorifying presidencies rather than merely places of scholarship.

The Chicago Tribune reported recently that the Obama Library could cost $500 million. Yes, you read that right – half a billion dollars. Plans are already underway to build it – and he’s not even out of office.

By comparison – Abraham Lincoln had been dead about 140 years before a presidential library was opened in his honor.

Richard Nixon built his library in 1990 for $25 million – entirely with private dollars. That would be the equivalent of $44 million today. 

That should be the model for how all of these libraries are built.

After all, we know anyone who has been elected president has an aptitude for raising money. That’s a necessary part of any successful campaign for the White House.

So why not leave it up to retiring politicians to raise the money for their own libraries and leave taxpayers out of the mix? And let’s close the book on this idea of our cash-strapped state spending $100 million toward burnishing a contemporary politician’s legacy.

That’s a task politicians can do well enough on their own.

• Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse reporter and the journalist in residence at the Illinois Policy Institute. He can be reached at sreeder@illinoispolicy.org.