The Arc of Presidential Libraries

Paul Musgrave, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst, has published an op-ed on problems with the Presidential library system in the US, and how the current (outgoing) President could exploit it to his usual ends. The essay is a fine complement to Jill Lepore’s New Yorker piece on the transition politics of official records.

Musgrave, scene-setting:

President Trump has reportedly spent little time thinking about his post-presidential life. (“You can’t broach it with him,” an anonymous friend told the New Yorker in recent days. “He’d be furious at the suggestion that he could lose.”) But he will surely avail himself of the same consolation prize his predecessors did: a presidential library. What will it look like?

The federal presidential library system traces its origins to Franklin Roosevelt’s 1941 establishment of a library to make his records more accessible in the interests of transparency. But lack of funding and weak oversight by the National Archives and Records Administration mean that, without significant changes in the law, Trump will have a perfect pedestal where he can erect a shrine to himself. His records won’t be available in full until after he dies; he’ll be able to raise millions to award sinecures to his aides as they tout his supposed successes at “making America great again”; there is no mandate to pursue historical accuracy; he can whitewash his legacy. This will be the headquarters for Trump’s permanent post-presidential campaign.

And while Trump’s presidency was distinguished by constant departures from norms, the library is one place where all presidents are consistent. Following a trail blazed most successfully by Richard Nixon, turning his presidential library into an image-making prop will be among the most normal things Trump ever does.

This line is especially pithy:

The arc of presidential libraries bends toward loyalty, not truth.

Good tie-in to larger points about the seemingly never-ending, self-perpetuating character of American political campaigns:

With a big war chest, the hallowed “permanent campaign” of the modern presidency could achieve its final form in a foundation dedicated to burnishing Trump’s record. Such a foundation could easily generate enough revenue to support endless functions at Trump resorts, hotels and Mar-a-Lago. It could even prove a launchpad for political careers for the next generation of Trumps — or, given that the president would still be in his 70s, for Trump to pull a Grover Cleveland-esque comeback himself.