The animatronic presidency: How presidential museums become propaganda palaces, whitewashing Bush’s disasters and Clinton’s failings

At presidential museums, even the cynical melt before multimillion-dollar efforts to portray scoundrels as leaders

Topics: Thomas Frank, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Editor's Picks, Tom Frank, Disney, Fleetwood Mac, George H.W. Bush, george bush, presidential library, Barack Obama, Elvis Presley, Hurricane Katrina, Decision Points, wmd, Willie Horton, Michael Dukakis, Swiftboat, Ted Cruz, Bono,

The animatronic presidency: How presidential museums become propaganda palaces, whitewashing Bush's disasters and Clinton's failings An impressive turnout of presidents arrives for the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Dallas, on May 1, 2014. (Credit: AP/David J. Phillip)

Barack Obama has formally entered that phase of the presidential life cycle that is all about defining his legacy, building a presidential library, and courting the judgment of historians. I suppose it is a good thing for politicians to consider the scrutiny of future generations. In fact, I wish they worried about it more; I wish they constantly asked themselves and their advisers what the nation’s scholars will make of their decisions. It would be a healthful check on an otherwise too-powerful office, where the decision to drop a bomb or render a suspect is attended by few other consequences.

Unfortunately, presidential libraries and historical scrutiny are not the same thing. They aren’t even in the same category, really. I visited three of the most recently built presidential museums a few weeks ago—the Bill Clinton Presidential Center plus two museums commemorating the administrations of men named George Bush—and found them to be, by and large, institutions of bald propaganda, buildings on which hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent to cast, literally, in stone, a given individual’s personal war with reality.

All of the presidential museums I visited have certain things in common. They each contain a replica of the Oval Office as it was decorated when the museum’s subject worked there. They each display lots of formal White House dinner settings and gifts the president received from foreign leaders. They usually feature a presidential limousine or some other mode of official conveyance. Their object is always the same: to make you, the visitor, love and esteem the politician in question.

This is closer to advertising than it is to scholarship. It can be persuasive. In fact, all three museums I visited were successful, to a certain degree, at convincing me to admire their subjects. I walked into each as the most skeptical possible visitor, ready to find fault and argue with the text. I didn’t particularly like any of the three presidents in question, although I voted for Bill Clinton and I once gave a lecture at the University of Arkansas’ nearby Clinton School of Public Service. But I left all three of these presidential shrines thinking the same thing of the man in question: Dang, he seems like a good guy. Despite all his screw-ups, he must have meant well.

Sometimes this warm feeling would stick to me all the way back to my hotel room, where I would finally wash it away with a cold six-pack.



*

Another thing these presidential libraries have in common is that they soft-pedal those moments of partisan rancor known as elections. Yes, each of them has lots of campaign buttons and the stupid sloganeering memorabilia you can collect at party conventions, but usually this stuff is sequestered in a single room or display case with little more explanation than a few commonplaces quoted from a campaign book. The feeling you get is that elections are exciting but largely without real content, and the less said about them the better. Now, on to the important stuff, which is to say, the big decisions and uplifting remarks that our subject made while he sat in the Oval Office.

And so, in the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum in College Station, Texas, you will find nothing in the collections on display about “voodoo economics,” the striking label George H. W. Bush applied to Ronald Reagan’s doctrines while on the campaign trail in 1980. You will search his exhibit on the 1988 presidential election in vain for a reference to either the infamous Willie Horton TV commercial or the flag-veneration fury that Bush stoked, even though both episodes are regarded by historians as milestones on the road to the culture-war bottom. Instead, the main commentary on that year’s contest is delivered by George’s wife, Barbara, who appears in a video testifying to her husband’s many personal virtues. When this fine fellow George Bush finally lost in 1992, the museum makes clear, it was only thanks to public misapprehension of economic issues.

Go to Little Rock, Arkansas, and visit the Clinton museum, however, and you will find that the public of 1992 got matters exactly right, that they perceptively grasped that “it was Bill Clinton who claimed the mantle as the candidate of change,” whatever that means. To judge by the library’s orientation movie, the most urgent issue facing the nation in 1992 was, as Clinton himself put it, that “We’ve got to be one country again.”

The exception to this Law of Meaningless Elections should be the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Dallas; after all, its subject only won the presidency in 2000 after an election so close it brought on a Constitutional crisis. Sure enough, there is a large exhibit on that very subject, complete with examples of the Florida ballots that proved so disastrous and an endless video loop of media errors on election night. But once again, what is not emphasized is what is most important, in this case the awkward but essential fact that George W. Bush actually received fewer votes than his opponent and therefore had no real business being in the White House at all. I could find no mention in the museum at all of Bush’s ugly, Swiftboating triumph of 2004.

I was going to criticize this aspect of presidential libraries for the obvious reason that elections aren’t some afterthought to be dismissed with empty phrases; they are, or should be, the very essence of politics.

But on second thought, maybe there is something healthy about the way these museums downplay partisan conflict. I personally find it irksome to sit in a chair and relive George Bush senior’s inaugural address, easily one of the most fatuous orations of the twentieth century. (“A thousand points of light.”) But other people—like, say, the consensus-minded folks who write newspaper columns—no doubt find it reassuring and even inspiring. The way George H. W. Bush’s museum presents him, this lifelong Republican partisan comes off like a fair and decent individual, especially when you compare the exhibits in his shrine to, say, the recent contumely of his fellow Texan Ted Cruz. Maybe presidential libraries are the last bastion of American civility, and I should stop typing this essay right now.

*

It is the presidential library of Bush’s son Dubya that makes such an approach impossible, because—just like the man himself in real life—it uses a surface of friendly platitudes and pseudo-professional objectivity to smuggle in distortion and ideology of the crudest sort. This is apparent from almost the first exhibit the visitor comes to, “Creating Opportunity.” This is supposedly about Bush’s stewardship of the economy, but look closer and it’s actually a salute to one single economic tool—tax cuts—so oblivious to what really happened in the Bush years that it includes a hands-on display for kids teaching them “How tax relief helps small businesses grow the economy.”

I don’t envy the people who won the contract to design Dubya’s museum. His reign saw so many catastrophes to gloss over, so many screw-ups to minimize and so many blunders to skate past that it must have taxed the imagination of the cleverest PR professionals. The basic problem facing them, of course, was how to present this stuff without making Bush seem like a scoundrel and without stoking visitors to a flaming rage. The strategy they appear to have settled upon is to defuse each discrete Bush disaster by presenting it between slabs of noncontroversial Bush virtue.

And so the infuriating exhibit on tax cuts is followed by a heroic, day-by-day reconstruction of Bush’s activities during his single chapter of greatness after September 11, 2001. Then: “Defending Freedom,” which is to say, invading Afghanistan and Iraq, passing the Patriot Act, opening his prison at Guantanamo Bay, and all the obscene rest of it. If you read carefully, you will find the Iraq War concession you’re looking for: “No stockpiles of WMD were found.” Otherwise, the museum sticks closely to the old script. The Iraq invasion was part of a “Global War on Terror”; we did it “to enforce the will of the international community”; and Saddam Hussein was really, really bad. Besides, remember how they tore down that statue? How they dipped their fingers in that purple ink when they voted?

This thick stuff is chased by lighter memories of Laura and the twins and all the fun they had. Barney the dog capers once again on the White House lawn. There’s an exhibit on the President’s Malaria Initiative, which I had never heard of before but which has obvious merit as a disgust suppressant. And there’s a sycophantic letter from Bono, written on Vanity Fair letterhead and carefully preserved for all mortified eternity in a glass vitrine.

Then, it’s back to the shit. An exhibit on Hurricane Katrina—or, more precisely, on how the lousy response to the hurricane wasn’t really Bush’s fault. (Bush’s pal Brownie is not mentioned.) An exhibit on the financial crisis, which, the president tells us, was “not a failure of the free market system.” Then comes the museum’s most ingenious device for blame-evasion: “Decision Points Theater,” an exhibit in which the greatest blunders of the last decade are presented as a sort of video game. In the scenario on the screen when I was there, visitors watched frantic TV news footage from the worst days of the 2008 financial crisis and were presented with two choices: Bail the bankers out or let the bastards fail—because those were the only two possibilities, right? If you think Bush screwed things up, well, let’s see you get a higher score than he did.

By the way, the group I watched chose to let the Wall Street banks fail, a satisfying denouement that is popular with the visitors, a nearby guard told me.

What I am saying is that this is a museum whose entire objective is to get one man off the hook for his egregious misrule. Maybe all presidential libraries do this; maybe it’s only more noticeable here since Iraq is still in flames and Wall Street banks are still fleecing the world and Bush’s free-market wrecking crew actually has a chance of resuming their experiment in good government any day now. But before your revulsion can boil over, you find yourself learning about the remarkable virtues of the George W. Bush retirement. His library has a Platinum LEED rating. He himself helped to build a humble clinic in Africa in 2012 and has arranged many sporting events for wounded veterans. Maybe you’ll even buy the jigsaw puzzle they’re selling in the gift shop that shows Bush and seven other Republican presidents playing cards, all of them lost in hilarious bonhomie. Forgive this man, please!

*

After all the blame-evasion, all the gaping lacunae and strutting Texicity of the two Bush presidential libraries, it is something of a relief to visit the Bill Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock, Arkansas. For starters, the superficial contrasts are big. Architecturally, the Bush museums are low-slung, limestone-heavy affairs, while the Clinton shrine is an elevated glass-and-steel box propped up on stilts at one end. Furthermore, Bill Clinton is not anxious to prove that he’s a bona fide, red-blooded Arkansan, like the Bushes are with their home state.

Another noteworthy difference: Clinton seems to be proud of what he did as president. The museum describes his Washington doings in exhaustive detail, with far more information than any visitor can possibly absorb; among other things, it includes a collection of notebooks showing Clinton’s exact whereabouts on every single day of his presidency. The detail gets even more granular on the days surrounding his 1993 inauguration, which the visitor is invited to relive hour by hour. There is also a Dow Jones zipper sign reminding you of the stock market’s enthusiasm for Clinton’s governance and a chart showing employment during the years of his administration in which the upward-sloping line is represented by a proudly glowing pink neon tube.

But this impulse to document can be just as deceptive in its own way as the Texas braggadocio and the conspicuous silences favored by the Bush family. What is presented so voluminously at the Clinton Center is really just a highly detailed collection of talking points—a stroll down a New Democrat memory lane that is lined with slogans at every turn.

For me, what it all brought back was how contemptuous the White House could be toward traditional liberals as Team Clinton made consensus out of one Republican idea after another. Consider, for example, the library’s exhibit on NAFTA, “Expanding Our Shared Prosperity.” The really subtle idea that is presented here is that “trade” is a good thing. Not that some particular kind of trade or level of trade or set of rules for trade is a good thing, but just that “trade” is good, full stop, and that therefore the 2,000-page document that is NAFTA must also be good. (Former U.S. trade representative Charlene Barshefsky says in a video recording: “I don’t know of any country that has grown without trade.”) The tacit disdain for the viewer’s intelligence is remarkable, even as the museum flatters us with those great heaps of pointless information.

Then again, this combination of flattery and contempt for the little people is also how Clinton ruled the country. The experts and the bankers had the answers to our problems, Clinton knew, and therefore his job was to sell those answers, to marshal the unruly rank and file of the Democratic Party behind the solutions that every educated person agreed to be correct. He promised to give us “an administration that looks like America,” but that brave multicultural bunch then proceeded to deregulate Wall Street. He would tell us he was promoting “learning across America,” and then do all he could to open charter schools. He would say he was “making work pay” and then bequeath us a nation where workers have no power and only ownership pays.

What a legacy. These were the causes for which Bill Clinton led his generation into political battle, for which he persuaded Fleetwood Mac to get back together, for which he sold his soul to Wall Street.

What is worthwhile and absolutely in earnest at this museum is the narration that visitors listen to on a handheld device, in which Bill Clinton himself tells the story of his life. As you listen, all the deception and the centrist bullshit fall away, and you are hearing a fascinating man relate genuinely profound insights that date all the way back to when he was 3 years old. It was only after listening to this that I began to think about the design of the Clinton Center itself—this oddly shaped box that is propped up at one end by a pair of poles that appear to be far too small for the job. The official explanation for this peculiar structure is that it is supposed to look like a bridge, and that’s appropriate, see, because Bill Clinton once mentioned a bridge to the 21st century—in another famous bit of fatuous oratory—and here we are in the 21st century, and so this building reminds us to give thanks to the guy who got us here.

But if you ask me, this thing doesn’t look like a bridge at all. What it most obviously resembles, with those little columns holding it up at one end, is a ball-return device from a bowling alley, an essential piece of equipment in the one sport that Bill Clinton was good at in his youth. Maybe bowling is Bill Clinton’s Rosebud, and the design of the museum is for him a kind of reminder of his difficult Arkansas childhood, of the time before he went off to all those fancy schools and led the Aquarian generation to its rendezvous with compromise—back when his heart’s desire, which he describes wistfully in the Clinton Center’s orientation video, was merely to be another Elvis Presley.

*

Now it is Barack Obama’s turn to contemplate his legacy. Indeed, according to newspaper stories on the subject, Obama’s team began planning for his post-presidential career only a few months after he started his second term as president. According to the New York Times, the job of coordinating this work is regarded within the White House as a particularly desirable “plum,” even as a “hot property.”

What makes it “hot” is that it is surrounded by money on all sides. Once upon a time, presidential libraries were fairly modest structures. Harry Truman’s cost $1.7 million. George W. Bush, however, reportedly raised some $500 million to build his. Of course, opening a presidential center is not the same thing as running a political campaign, but when such enormous sums are involved it raises the same question of whether or not donors might have received something in exchange for their contribution.

In Obama’s case, there is already a team of business people who are organizing the legacy project from the outside. There are the various cities and institutions putting together their bids for the future Obama library, each of them no doubt competing to offer the sweetest deal and the finest piece of real estate (although the Illinois legislature just nixed a bill that would have offered $100 million toward the presidential library if it were built in that state). And, of course, there are the political donors who will have to be tapped one more time. According to the Times’s story on the subject, an investment banker who is familiar with the president says Obama is “show[ing] more ‘good will’ to the business community” because very shortly he will have to raise hundreds of millions of dollars from them.

The prospect of Obama catering to the wealthy on into the post-presidential future is one reason to find all this legacy-planning objectionable. Another is the spectacle of cities and universities bidding for his future library in the way desperate heartland towns bid for conventions and footloose pro sports franchises.

I also can’t help but feel that Obama should actually be focused on doing things he can boast about before he builds himself some monumental structure designed to boast about what he’s done. In 2009 he won the Nobel Peace Prize before he actually did anything, and now in a weird inversion of that episode he’s begun working on his legacy when he still has nearly two and a half years as president yet to go—two and a half years, remember, that belong to the taxpayers, not to the campaign donors. Obama can plan the showcase for his achievements on his own time. Right now, he needs to get out of his chair and achieve.

But the main reason he should lay off the monumentalizing is because we don’t need another one. These are bad museums, closer to exercises in personal triumphalism than chronicles of an era. A hundred years from now, they themselves will be objects of study, and students visiting them will learn not that, say, George W. Bush was without fault, but that his museum’s desperate blame-evasion gives us important clues about his disastrous approach to governing.

Anyone can make a museum. The byways of America are cluttered with homemade displays of folk art and pastimes taken to extremes. Sometimes they are profound, sometimes they are political, but always they are intensely personal.

What separates them from these hundred-million-dollar presidential piles? Not much, really. For all the fundraising that goes into these monuments, all the landscaping, all the careful weighing of phrases, the result is far closer to the Hall of Presidents at Disney World than to the Smithsonian. In fact, I’ve read that the Lyndon Johnson library has an animatronic LBJ; I haven’t seen it myself, but until a few years ago, it was reportedly dressed like a cowboy and told colorful anecdotes while leaning on a fence. And maybe that’s the right way to go about these things: Let the folks from the Magic Kingdom handle the job.

Thomas Frank

Thomas Frank is a Salon politics and culture columnist. His many books include "What's The Matter With Kansas," "Pity the Billionaire" and "One Market Under God." He is the founding editor of The Baffler magazine.

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