Thursday, June 7, 2012

Lives--and Libraries--of the Presidents

A couple of years ago on the way back from a vacation in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, my wife Pam and I stopped at the Gerald Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids. That visit inspired an item on our bucket lists: To visit all the existing presidential libraries, 20 at last count, 13 of them operated by the National Archives and Records Administration.

On Tuesday, while returning from a family gathering in Texas, we stopped in Little Rock, Arkansas, and spent about three hours at the William J. Clinton Presidential Library. It is housed in a splendid modern structure, situated next to the Arkansas River just outside downtown Little Rock. The building appears to have been designed to evoke one of President Clinton's favorite phrases--"building a bridge to the 21st Century." But in the end, I found myself as unmoved by the Clinton library as I was moved by Ford's, and it took me awhile to understand why.

The Ford museum (the Ford library is located in Ann Arbor at the University of Michigan) had a funky feel to it. Touring it felt like going through a trove of old family photos and other memorabilia. While the place obviously followed a plan, it had a relaxed, serendipitous feel. It seemed as if the exhibits were telling a story--or a series of stories--about Ford and his life and times.

Touring the Clinton library, by contrast, felt like sitting through a political science lecture, with Clinton himself as the lecturer. The place seemed relentlessly planned, organized, ordered. At some point pretty early on, I quit listening to the audio tour device over which Clinton explained the displays and exhibits. Between the sound from the device and the sounds piped into each exhibit alcove through ceiling speakers, there was just too much audio. In fact, there was just too much of everything--documents, photos, explanations, placards. I found myself thinking, "What this place needs is a good editor."

Strikes me there's a lesson for journalists in these two different approaches. The Clinton library is like one of those long, ponderous newspaper series on an issue that has been researched beyond exhaustively, but that nobody can stand to read. The Ford museum is like a well-told story--one that is long and important, but engagingly told and full of life and people and color. I know which one I would read first.

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