Join me as I expose the history, politics and secrecy involved in raising money, building & operating presidential libraries. With your backing I will be able to complete my research and write The Last Campaign: How Presidents Rewrite History, Run for Posterity and Enshrine Their Legacies. To do that, I need to visit and examine the six presidential libraries that made major changes in the last few years. As a backer, you'll become part of the final phase of my ten-year journey to research and write this book.
THANK YOU to everyone who backed and supported this project!
Presidential libraries seem like innocuous tourist attractions. The older libraries are modest, valuable repositories that contribute greatly to our understanding of presidents, politics and events. But the modern ones are oversized taxpayer-funded legacy-burnishing monuments full of skewed history...and hundreds of millions of important presidential records that won't be available for decades, if ever. Few understand the hidden history of the libraries - federal institutions operated by our tax dollars - and the level to which money and politics play a role in everything from exhibits, public and educational programs to the choice of location and even personnel. This is because the story of presidential libraries – the documented, historical story – has never been told. Until now.
The Last Campaign: it's about our history, and why it's different from how it's told to us. Accountability. Transparency. Freedom of information. And what presidents do to keep us from knowing what presidents do.
When presidents run for re-election, they often call it their "last campaign” because no future electoral contest awaits them. However, they do engage in the fight to shape their legacy: to rewrite it, control it and enshrine it. For decades, former presidents have seen their approval ratings rise each year they are out of office, due directly to the aggressive, ongoing campaign at their library - and the fact that their most important records are not available to us.
There are now thirteen federally-run presidential libraries in the United States, from Herbert Hoover to George W. Bush. President Barack Obama has begun plans for his own, and locations across the country are vying to be selected as the site. The libraries are the greatest sources of popular American history of the last eighty years, through their exhibits and educational and public programs, and the books, articles, theses and films produced using their resources.
Yet few books have been written about them, and none has examined the libraries’ politics and political history – especially the role that big, private money plays in their planning, development and operation, and the way that political parties use some of these federal institutions for their own purposes.
I'm a recognized expert in presidential libraries. I've managed oversight of the presidential library system for the U.S. House of Representatives, directing hearings and investigations of the National Archives (NARA) for the Committee on Oversight & Government Reform. I've researched the presidential libraries - and this book - for over ten years. See my full bio for more details.
Since 2003, I've spent about a month in each of the twelve presidential libraries from Hoover through Clinton, and I've taken more than 50,000 photographs - and hours of video - of the exhibits, architecture and records at the libraries. I've interviewed dozens of researchers and historians, and current and former presidential library directors, curators, archivists, exhibit specialists, educators and public affairs officials.
I've worked on the book at night, on weekends and in lieu of vacations and financed my research and travel to the presidential libraries with my savings. But in just the last few years, five of the libraries have renovated their permanent exhibits, and thousands of records have been released. And a new library – for George W. Bush – just opened in Texas. I need one more round of visits to explore the records and the new exhibits, see how they tell their stories, and compare them with their original displays – and with the objective histories of their eras. This will be the first book ever written with primary research at all the presidential libraries.
In The Last Campaign, I will demonstrate how the influence of private contributions and political parties have radically altered the look and purpose of presidential libraries, from archival storehouses of history to extravagant, politicized showplaces where the goals of the party, the family and former officials intent on future promotions trump the historical – and often inconvenient – facts. This influence also has altered the way presidents and officials create records - or don't - out of concerns over possible future disclosures. And it's altered the process by which presidents release - or hold back - their own records.
I will tell the story of presidential records, and how it relates to open government, transparency and freedom of information. And I will reveal major previously-unreported stories about presidents - using their own records from their libraries - shed new light on some well-known controversies, and demonstrate the negative effects of unregulated presidential commemoration on our political process.
Most importantly, drawing on my experience as a Committee staffer and Legislative Director in Congress, I will provide a legislative and governmental blueprint for successfully reforming the presidential library system - and returning us to Franklin D. Roosevelt's original goal of preserving and making presidential records available to all.
To complete the book, I must travel to document the new exhibits and research in the archives at: the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, NY; the Lyndon B. Johnson Library in Austin, TX; the Richard Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, CA: the Jimmy Carter Library in Atlanta, GA; the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, CA; and the George W. Bush Library in Dallas, TX.
The vast majority of the research for the book is complete - except for these last visits to six of the libraries. There is little risk that I will not complete the research. I have an excellent literary agent, and we are in the process of negotiating with a publisher. A successfully funded Kickstarter project would enable me to finish my research more quickly, but I will publish this book.
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