Somehow I missed this story on how the forthcoming Obama Center (above) will be challenging the “scam” of presidential libraries. The author, who wrote a book on the topic, lays out how:
The National Archives and Records Administration—which operates presidential library-museums for every president from Herbert Hoover through George W. Bush—won’t be operating either for Obama. His private Obama Foundation, not the government, will own and operate the museum. And there really won’t be a presidential library. The Obama Foundation will pay for NARA to digitize unclassified records and release them to the public as they become available, but the center’s “Library,” which may or may not house a local branch of the Chicago Public Library, will not contain or control presidential papers and artifacts, digital or otherwise. Instead, according to a NARA press release that called the museum “a new model for the preservation and accessibility of presidential records,” those records will be stored in “existing NARA facilities”—meaning one or more of the agency’s research or records centers across the country.
Is this good or bad?
The notion that a federal presidential library would contain no papers, and not actually be federally operated, is astonishing. But to those like myself who have advocated for years—without much success—that it’s time to reform the broken presidential library system, it’s also an important positive development, and one that could be revolutionary.
Though I’ve been to several presidential museums, I don’t think I’ve ever been in the library portions of them. I wonder how this will play among scholars who actually need access to the records. Will it be more convenient or less convenient for them to be separated from the “flashy, partisan temples touting huckster history” (LOL)? We’ll see, I guess.
I do like the idea of including a branch of the Chicago Public Library. That won’t assuage all the other local concerns about the Obama Library, but it would go a long way to keep what can easily become an isolated, self-contained operation connected with the community that feeds it. All the better it will be for the former Reader in Chief.
Not sure if any of the other modern presidential libraries incorporate public libraries, but that would be a mutually beneficial new trend.
Just after Obama was inaugurated in 2009, I wrote a reflection about George W. Bush’s place in my life as “the president of my youth.” I was a junior in college then, and had just voted for the first time. It was my first and only vote for Obama (I voted Libertarian in 2012), but the Obama presidency nevertheless will have spanned most of my twenties.
There’s no proof of this, but I assumed throughout the long 2008 primary campaign that Obama would win. Even when he was down double-digits to Clinton, I got the sense he would pull it out. With John McCain yoked to George W. Bush, whose approval ratings were in the 20s by the end of his administration, I knew he’d have a better chance than Clinton, whose unfavorables would be a liability in the general. (Which was confirmed eight years later.)
The 2008 election was unforgettable: “I inhaled frequently”, Obama winning Iowa, his Philadelphia speech, the “Obama’s an Arab” McCain rally lady, all the SNL skits, the economy crashing, and then Obama finally winning it. I didn’t go down to Grant Park for the victory rally like a lot of my fellow students; I watched the returns in my residence hall lounge, and realized as soon as California and Oregon came in that he had won. And it wasn’t even close.
Also unforgettable was the state of the economy when Obama entered office. *insert “freefall into abyss” emoji\* It’s usually true that presidents get too much blame when the economy is doing badly and too much credit when it is doing well, but the record shows how different the economy looks now compared to how it did then. I’ll leave it to the hacks and wonks to decide how much credit and blame Bush and Obama deserve for the state of their economies, but I’ll take the 2016 numbers over the 2008-09 ones any day.
The rest of Obama’s public record is widely available, thanks to the boom of social media and the ‘Net over the last decade and a half. His presidency was covered more than any other, and his persona was everywhere. Every moment I remember of him can be recalled on YouTube in an instant, sick burns and gaffes and all.
But I think the Obama I’ll remember is epitomized in this clip from a PBS town hall, answering a loaded question about gun control:
I imagine in his head he’s screaming “FOR THE MILLIONTH TIME I’M NOT TRYING TO TAKE YOUR GUNS”, but as usual, he takes a cerebral approach to a complicated issue, acknowledging the questioner’s concerns and offering a clear, thoughtful response. I happen to agree with him on this one, though that isn’t always the case. It’s his temperament and intellect that impress me. Ever aware of his position as the first black president—at once a role model and lightning rod—his self-discipline, calm demeanor, and introspective nature were noteworthy.
For some, his temperament was a liability: he was too cool, too wonky, too meek to be an effective president. But I’d venture it was a significant reason why “No Drama” Obama’s two terms were largely scandal-free compared to the Clinton, Bush, and (hooboy…) Trump White Houses. Certainly it got him into trouble at times, whether in his negotiations with Congress during the Obamacare fight or when navigating the imbroglios in the Middle East. But back in 2008, those qualities were immensely appealing compared to the impulsive Texan swagger of the Bush years that did so much damage at home and abroad. That contrast has once again become evident, given the borderline-unhinged personality of the incoming administration.
As with politics in general, it’ll be hard to fairly assess Obama’s administration for a while, until we can see from the bird’s-eye view how the ripples from his actions affected the water. In the meantime we are left to bob in the wake and decide whether we enjoyed the ride or just felt queasy. I could go down the line of consequential events that happened during his tenure and grade his performance, but I suspect every good thing would have its own but. He spearheaded the Affordable Care Act’s needed reform, but yike$. He drew down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but ISIS. He and Hillary took the high road against Trump in 2016, but lost.
So it goes at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the place where Obama nevertheless has remained by all appearances a loving father and husband, an avid reader, and an admirable public servant. Here at the dusk of one administration and the dawn of another, that is what I’ve been grateful for, and hope against hope to see in the future.
As a reader, librarian, and citizen, I’m going to miss this “reader in chief,” as John McMurtrie of the San Francisco Chroniclecalls him:
As is amply manifest in his writing, Obama is someone who has done a lot of thinking about his place in the world, his upbringing, his uniquely American story. And, as president, he has proved himself to be just as reflective, viewing the world, as he says, in shades of gray, with nuance — qualities enhanced by a lifetime of reading.
It’s been really nice having a president who not only knows who Marilynne Robinson and Ta-Nehisi Coates are, but can have intelligent, in-depth conversations with her and him. (It’s also really nice to have a new Librarian of Congress now, rather than next year or beyond. Don’t want to think about who PEOTUS would have nominated.)
And what of Obama’s successor? McMurtie:
Despite all the books that bear his name, the next president, in fact, seems to care very little about books. He tweets obsessively, at all hours, about the most trivial matters, yet he claims he doesn’t have the time to read.
“I’m always busy doing a lot,” he told the Washington Post in July. “Now I’m more busy, I guess, than ever before.”
When asked by Megyn Kelly of Fox News to name the last book he read, he answered, “I read passages, I read areas, chapters. I don’t have the time.”
“His political experience had been restricted almost exclusively to one state, and his knowledge of national and international affairs was limited to what any reasonably curious New Yorker might cull from local newspapers.”
“His nomination had been entirely unexpected, and was commonly interpreted as a device for placating the most opprobrious forces within the GOP.”
“His presidency was almost unanimously dreaded. There were those, however, who contended that he would change dramatically once he found himself in the White House.”
“It is out of this mess of filth that he will go to the Presidential chair.”
“It was a common saying of that time among those who knew him best, ‘Chet Arthur President of the United States. Good God.'”
Oh, you thought I might be referring to our incoming forty-fifth president? Good guess. But these quotes were instead written about Chester A. Arthur, our twenty-first president and the subject of the latest presidential biography I decided to tackle: Gentleman Boss: The Life of Chester Alan Arthur by Thomas Reeves.
Why Arthur? I remember reading in Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic, which is about the assassination of James Garfield, about how as Garfield’s vice president and successor, Arthur was considered a corrupt spoilsman, a GOP hack subject to the whims of nefarious party strongmen. He’d never held public office before being named vice president as a consolation prize for his wing of the Republican Party. He was New York’s quartermaster general during the Civil War but otherwise hadn’t served in the military. His sudden ascension to the presidency was greeted with a mix of dread and low expectations, and yet when he became president he managed to surprise everyone with his dedication to reform and respectability.
Hope, then, is why Arthur and why now. After the 2016 election I wanted to learn more about the man whose presidency made a good many people scoff and wring their hands in despair, yet who proved them wrong by being better than he had been—or at least clearing the low bar that was set for him.
The comparison only goes so far. Arthur practiced law, was involved in GOP politics politics for years, and proved a capable and well-regarded quartermaster during the war. He wasn’t the moral vacuum his 2016 successor is, though he also didn’t leave much time for family and was an unabashed beneficiary of the privileges his positions afforded. If anything the current president-elect compares just as much to Arthur’s successor, Grover Cleveland, who fathered an illegitimate child, had hired a convict as a “substitute” in the Civil War, and was “supposed to have enjoyed hanging two criminals” while serving as sheriff in Buffalo.
(Hints of Obama surfaced too: Arthur was accused by rivals of being foreign-born, first in Ireland, then later in Canada, and thus ineligible for the presidency. He also had to retake the oath of office after having first done it with a New York state judge at 2 a.m. the morning after Garfield died.)
More an exhaustive overview of Gilded Age politics than an Arthur biography, the book often felt like Reeves was more interested in tariff debates and who got appointed to which middling position than in talking about Arthur, who admittedly isn’t the most rousing historical subject. It felt a lot longer than it was, though it did drop some interesting Arthur Nuggets™ like:
He was one of a few first-generation presidents: Jackson, Buchanan, and Obama’s fathers and Jefferson, Wilson, and Hoover’s mothers were foreign-born
He spoke at the capstone ceremony of the finally completed Washington Monument in December 1884, which had been under construction since 1848
His younger sister Mary served as First Lady because his wife had died before he entered office
As Reeves writes, the presidency during the Gilded Age did not have the power it now has. Congress controlled the political movement of the day; the president was a vetoer and just kept the federal machine running by filling positions with supporters and other eager office-seekers. There also weren’t the cascading foreign crises we’re used to presidents having to manage today. “From Appomattox to the sinking of the Maine,” Reeves writes, “the nation was preoccupied with its own internal developments.” Moreover, Arthur didn’t really want the job. He was forced into it and surprised everyone with how he handled it.
Someone who understood this at the time was Julia Sand, a young disabled woman from New Jersey who began writing to Arthur after Garfield was shot to encourage him and offer unsolicited political counsel. She knew Arthur’s reputation, but eloquently implored him to overcome it:
Rise to the emergency. Disappoint our fears. Force the nation to have faith in you. Show from the first that you have none but the purest aims. It may be difficult at once to inspire confidence, but persevere. In time—when you have given reason for it—the country will love & trust you. … It is for you to choose whether your record shall be written in black or in gold.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith in 2011 at the ceremony for the new CBA.
I remember back during the 2011 NFL lockout, a Packers.com columnist kept writing to the fans not to get invested in the heated rhetoric between the players and owners, because once an agreement was reached—and it would be reached—the representatives of the players and the owners would be hugging on stage, all would be well again, and the fans who’d so adamantly taken sides would be wondering why they invested so much energy and partisan passion into a PR battle. And sure enough, a new CBA was reached, football started on time, and all those months of tit-for-tat suddenly seemed far less serious than diehard fans would have believed.
I was reminded of that time and feeling while listening to David Axelrod’s conversation with Karl Rove on Axelrod’s podcast. As the two chief political operatives for the campaigns of Barack Obama and George W. Bush, they are each other’s political opposite and rival, representing the ideologies of the two primary political parties in the United States. And here they are, chatting about life and politics like old college chums. If you didn’t know which party they worked for you might not even know they were opponents.
So when the fire-breathers on either side of the aisle get fired up on cable news or talk radio, excoriating the Other Guys for the sin of not agreeing with them or even viewing them as downright evil, I get to wondering if they’re just being played for suckers.
If Karl Rove and David Axelrod—the guys whose job it is to convince voters in strong terms that the other guy is absolutely wrong and must be stopped—if they can sit and have a laugh together, why can’t the people whose votes they seek?
If Trump toady Sean Hannity can hang out at a baseball game with Keith Olbermann, his arch media rival for a time, or harass Megyn Kelly—also a Fox News commentator—on Twitter and then literally hug it out, why don’t Hannity’s wound-up followers see through the pablum he’s peddling for views?
Sports and politics are similar in that they involve intense gamesmanship, strategy, and a struggle of power and will and performance in a high-pressure environment. Obama even compared politics to football in a chat with Jerry Seinfeld. So why is it NFL players can play the game intensely, trying desperately to defeat their opponent, but still converge on the field after the game for hugs and handshakes and prayer circles? And why can’t voters?
The easy answer is that sports don’t matter, ultimately. They matter to the players, whose livelihoods are affected by their performance. But when a fan turns off the TV after a game, his life is the exact same as it was when the game began. Conversely, politics do matter. People’s lives are affected by legislation and the action or inaction of leaders.
But I don’t think it has to be that simple.
If voters and pundits actually cared about winning—i.e. getting legislature through Congress or changing their opponents’ minds—they wouldn’t demonize the people whose votes will be needed in order to achieve that desired victory.
If voters and pundits actually cared about winning, they should read and view things outside of their ideological media echo chamber to better understand why some people have different opinions.
But it seems like people just want to act angry. Settle scores. Humiliate whoever their Other is. And all the while the TV networks, talk radio, the NFL, or whoever has something to gain from outrage, rakes in enough revenue through clicks, ads, and eyeballs to self-justify, rinse, and repeat.
I’m not doubting the sincerity of those with strongly held beliefs, or those who go public with them. In a democracy, that should be encouraged. I only wish to avoid the scorched earth that comes of it, because I, speaking for those of us who aren’t holding the flamethrowers, am not interested in getting burned by someone who doesn’t know how the game is played.
If you put a gun to my head and told me that I had to vote for either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, I would but whisper, “Goodbye cruel world.” But if my family somehow managed to convince me to stick around, in preference to Trump I would vote for Hillary. Or John Kerry, or Nancy Pelosi. In preference to Trump I would vote for the reanimated corpse of Adlai Stevenson, or for that matter that of Julius Caesar, who perhaps has learned a thing or two in his two thousand years of afterlife. The only living person that I would readily choose Trump in preference to is Charles Manson.
Here’s what I do get about the Trump phenomenon: it’s real and legitimate and not to be denied. The part of it that isn’t baldly racist/sexist/etc is a well-deserved comeuppance for the policy of establishment Republicans (and Democrats, though they felt the Bern of their comeuppance) to believe the people work for the Party and not the other way around. I’m as surprised as anyone that Trump has gotten this far (just checked… yep, he is actually, literally the Republican nominee), but he didn’t arrive in a vacuum, and any political movement as potent as his demands attention.
Here’s what I don’t get: why anyone, despite all of the aforementioned reasons, would nevertheless choose to pull their voting booth’s metaphorical lever for an egomaniacal, bullshitting pig like Donald Trump to be president of the United States.
Not one of the voting blocs Trump currently finds support from would benefit from his presidency. Do low-income whites hurting in the Rust Belt actually think he’ll bring all “the jobs” back from the very places he’s made money from overseas? Do anti-immigration hardliners actually think stopping Muslim immigration is at all feasible and not blindingly unconstitutional? Do “evangelical” “Christians” actually think Donald J. Trump gives one damn about Christianity and won’t immediately throw religious freedom under the bus the moment it’s convenient?
[Also: He doesn’t want to be president. He probably didn’t expect to get to the primaries, let alone the convention, and is now as usual making it up as he goes, flitting around and stumbling into success because the rotting carcass formerly known as the Republican Party was too dead-eyed to fight off the contagion of Trumpism. This is The Producers come to life. He just wants to be on TV and will hire Roger Ailes to make it happen as soon as possible.]
Again: I get it. If you hate Obama or can’t find a job or find Black Lives Matter distasteful or want to give the finger to Mitch McConnell, Trump is the train to hop on this year.
The man is inherently, self-evidently unfit for the presidency. Denigrate Hillary Clinton for her beliefs and character flaws and hawkishness and subservience to corporate interests, but don’t say she’s unfit for the office, or God forbid, that she’s “just as bad as Trump.” A former senator and secretary of state versus a blabbering reality-TV man-child? Give me a break.
I ain’t voting for Clinton. Like Alan Jacobs quoted above, forced at gunpoint to choose between Clinton and Trump I’d choose Clinton and then pull the trigger myself. But my greatest hope this year is that Clinton demolishes TrumPence in November and becomes our first woman president. I’m sure that means more Middle East invasions, Clinton family scandals, and who knows what else. But it won’t be worse than President Trump.
I applaud the prominent conservatives and Republicans who have spoken out against their party’s nominee and the toxic cloud trailing his campaign, knowing and even hoping to damage Trump enough to prevent his election. Whether moved by principle or political calculation, it matters. They are on the record, as are the ones who have cast their lots with Trump.
I read this slice from a John Heilemann interview in which he equates Obama’s introversion with a dislike of people in general. Compared to Bill Clinton (who I’m pretty sure can eschew food and water to survive on attention alone), he says, Obama doesn’t thrive off the glad-handing or schmoozing a “successful” politician must do. Instead, he leaves the legislative arm-twisting to more interested surrogates and stays within a small, close-knit group of advisors.
Here’s the key exchange:
JH: Obama is an unusual politician. There are very few people in American politics who achieve something — not to mention the Presidency — in which the following two conditions are true: one, they don’t like people. And two, they don’t like politics.
KC: Obama doesn’t like people?
JH: I don’t think he doesn’t like people. I know he doesn’t like people. He’s not an extrovert; he’s an introvert.
With respect to Heilemann, I disagree. Not with the notion that Obama probably doesn’t “like” people, but with his contention that his alleged misanthropy is intrinsically connected with his introversion. I’ve written before about my own journey of understanding introversion and how we’re a woefully misunderstood bunch; this newest bit about Obama simply reinforces the central fallacy about introversion, that we don’t like people.
I am an introvert and I love people—in small doses. There’s a huge difference between not liking people and merely wanting to be around groups of people in regulated exposures. Contrary to the popular yet wrong belief, introverts are not defined by their opinion of other people but by where they get their energy. Just because I need alone time does not mean I hate being around people; it means I need to “recharge my batteries” after a long day of being around (usually) higher-energy people.
The Bill Clintons of the world don’t get exhausted by socializing; they thrive on it, and probably can’t stand being alone. But Obama, like me, no doubt cherishes any time alone with his thoughts he can muster in his hyper-active and socialized job as chief executive of an entire nation.
I do, however, agree with Kevin Drum’s take at Mother Jones on Obama’s introversion in one regard: that Obama’s introversion is probably why I like the guy so much. I like that he’s more concerned with policy and getting stuff done than forcing a faux-folksy persona to get a few votes. “I get that schmoozing is part of the job,” Drum writes, “and I also get that most politicians are insufferable egotists who get bent out of shape whenever someone doesn’t pay sufficient attention to them.”
Introverts are not automatically misanthropes, just as extroverts are not automatically insufferable egotists. Since introverts don’t run the world (usually—in that way Obama is definitely a change I can believe in), we need an extra dose of understanding from our extroverted brethren.
Greg Sargent of The Washington Postpoints to a telling section of Mitt Romney’s entirely predictable critique of Obama’s handling of the situation in Libya:
“I believe that it flows from his fundamental disbelief in American exceptionalism. In the President’s world, all nations have ‘common interests,’ the lines between good and evil are blurred, America’s history merits apology. And without a compass to guide him in our increasingly turbulent world, he’s tentative, indecisive, timid and nuanced.” [emphasis mine]
The first three adjectives Romney uses in the last clause to describe the President are typical of right-wing critics. But the last one is new, though, again, entirely unsurprising. That the 2012 Republican frontrunner sees nuance in a president’s approach to foreign policy as a weakness reveals that the black-and-white, good-vs.-evil dichotomy perfected by George W. Bush is still alive and well in Republican dogma.
So it looks like the United States has found itself part of another conflict. I can’t say I’m in favor of opening up a third war for the United States, however limited our involvement, but the humanitarian aspect is hard to ignore.
But right off the bat, I look at the words and actions of President Obama and how they contrast with those of Candidate Obama and Nobel Peace Prize-winning Obama. Andrew Sullivan pointed out a quote from his Nobel Prize speech:
I believe that force can be justified on humanitarian grounds, as it was in the Balkans, or in other places that have been scarred by war. Inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly intervention later. That is why all responsible nations must embrace the role that militaries with a clear mandate can play to keep the peace.
So we can’t say we weren’t warned this may happen. But where’s the authorization for this engagement? Didn’t Obama ride into the White House on his criticism of President Bush’s lack of accountability for wartime executive power? And now we’re part of an invasion of another country – however crazy and nefarious its leader – without any Congressional vote? At least the Bush administration gave the public the courtesy of selling the cause for war in Iraq – again, however wrong the argument.
And I can’t get passed the inconsistent policy of the United States to support some dictatorial regimes while attempting to overthrow others. Civilians in Egypt, Bahrain, and Yemen face equal hardships the Libyan people do, yet instead of getting the boot these governments get our support.
I’ve started reading the blog of Andrew Sullivan, a columnist for The Atlantic. What’s great about it is he updates as many as 20 times a day with fascinating items, links to interesting stories, and bits of commentary that can’t be pinned down to one specific ideology.
One of the items today was on the continuing violence that is erupting at the health care forums around the country and how it has a lot to do not with the debate over health care, but with the larger issue of the ever-shrinking Republican Party and how a lot of it’s farther right followers are reacting to Obama being president. The “Birther” movement has a lot to do with this, and if it continues to be an issue that Republicans in the House of Representatives and CNN anchors and extreme right-wing commentators continue to pursue, things will only get worse for the Republicans, no matter how health care reform turns out.