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July 24, 2014

Archivist Gadfly Aims to Keep Ex-Presidents Honest

Dogged researcher Anthony Clark wants to peel back the curtain on what he believes might be the most blatantly revisionist outlets to ever operate on the taxpayers’ dime: presidential libraries.

Archivist Gadfly Aims to Keep Ex Presidents Honest

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His forthcoming exposé, “The Last Campaign,” delves into the secretive world of how former presidents and their privately funded foundations put the happiest face possible on all that they accomplished, while also striving to sweep any negativity under the rug.

According to Clark, most modern presidential foundations — and, by extension, the monolithic showplaces they spawn — have abandoned any semblance of being merely academic, assuming more of an activist role in rehabilitating their namesakes’ legacies.

“They get to say whatever they want in the library,” he said of the creative editing that often shapes a presidential collection before opening day. Clark suggested that each ex-commander in chief, along with his respective Cabinet members, naturally, all have input into the “first draft of history” enshrined within the four walls that will ultimately bear that particular administration’s highly selective stamp of approval.

“They’re seen as policy centers,” he said, charging many with marching forward with a “let’s continue to make our case” mentality.

He notes that before 1978, presidential records were considered the personal property of the respective leader. When and if they decided to “gift” certain documents to their respective libraries, those information dumps often came with all kinds of caveats and professional safeguards.

Once the Presidential Records Act became law, every scrap of paper produced by the White House became subject to public domain — a sea change Clark perceives as both good and bad. “The FOIA process … ground everything to a halt,” he said of the overwhelming records-releasing requirement.

Clark has been investigating all the existing presidential libraries since 2003, though he did take a three-year break (October 2009-January 2013) from digging while helping Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo., get a handle on the presidential library birthing process. Clark worked in Clay’s personal office and spearheaded investigations into the arcane issue as an aide on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Although he’s got plenty of ground still left cover — he has not yet stepped foot in the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum that debuted earlier this year; he also needs to revisit the handful of libraries that have undergone significant renovations in recent years — Clark was able to share a few tidbits about his findings to date:

  • Most politically entrenched foundations: John F. Kennedy (continues to resist his calls to review any founding documents) and Ronald Reagan. “They never mention Iran-Contra,” he said of the second-term bombshell that’s completely glossed over by 40’s record keepers.
  • Most compartmentalizing: He notes that the library chronicling the exploits of President Bill Clinton doesn’t skirt his extramarital affairs entirely, but it does tuck the entire Monica Lewinsky sex scandal into a broader impeachment-related exhibit dubbed, “The Fight for Power.”
  • Most open and accommodating: the foundation associated with President Herbert Hoover.

At press time, Clark was within striking distance of the funding goal laid out by his Kickstarter campaign (ends at 11 a.m. Tuesday). Regardless, he said he’s already in serious talks with publishers about moving forward with the project one way or another.

“I want to be able to have this out in the early third quarter,” he said of this desire to seize on the unprecedented number of presidential library milestones — 15, to be exact — set to be celebrated in 2014.

And you better believe he’s keeping tabs on when and where President Barack Obama might ship his personal paper trail after handing over the keys to the Oval Office.

Still, Clark doesn’t expect to hear 44 breathe a word about building any monuments to himself until well after the midterm elections in 2014.

“That would only muddy the political waters,” Clark estimated.

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