Jewish World Review Nov. 29, 2005 / 27 Mar-Cheshvan,
The Clinton library after one year
The numbers are in, and it's been a very good year for the William Jefferson Clinton presidential center, museum, park, monument, shrine, triple-wide, venue, show and general attraction in Little Rock, Ark.
Some 492,000 people have passed through the turnstiles since it was opened in the middle of an old-fashioned Arkansas gully-washer. If opening day was all wet, the attendance figures have been sunny ever since.
Perhaps the most encouraging thing about the presidential library's boffo performance is the way it's given the lie to the widespread assumption in American advertising that Sex Sells! The library's PG-13 version of the Clinton Years has brought 'em in without having to hawk any scandals whether sexual, fiscal, political or miscellaneous.
The historian in me may be disconcerted by the plain brown wrapper, but my inner Victorian is pleased by how the Clinton Years have been improved by the soft focus, much like some of the most affecting scenes in old movies.
The airbrushed version of history on display at the museum can leave just about everybody in a good mood. Those who designed the exhibits knew a thing or two about showbiz, mainly: Give 'em a happy ending every time!
It's something of a rule for presidential libraries, even if it may be exaggerated in the case of this one: If the historical figure being celebrated was a bit of a scamp, hey, he was our scamp.
Who would have the heart to demand that all those Californians lining up to enter the Nixon Library take an objective view of their native son? Surely reality can wait till they're off the premises. History needn't be one long series of exposes; it should be able to provide a little harmless escapism from time to time.
Besides, as the times change, each generation's view of a president may change, too. That is, if the president doesn't disappear from view entirely. Who today can get exercised over Millard Fillmore or Benjamin Harrison except perhaps the authors of specialized historical monographs? Or maybe residents of their home states. Even Warren G. Harding has his share of admirers, at least in his native Ohio.
Gerald Ford, whose rise to the White House was so meteoric he didn't have time to be elected president or vice-president, is the subject of adoration in Grand Rapids, Mich., where his presidential museum stands uncluttered by his presidential papers, which are housed at a safe distance in Ann Arbor. That way, both romance and reality get their separate-but-equal shot at the visitor.
There'll be plenty of time to argue about the accuracy of any presidential library's displays on the ride home. Indeed, that discussion might be more educational than the visit. The way the best part of some movies is the discussion over coffee afterward. There's nothing like a few hours, or a few decades, to cool emotions and let proportion take the place of promotion.
As for the school kids who are paying their first visit to a presidential library, as they grow up and read a fuller exposition of the Clinton Years, what better way to learn that history is a contemporary art, always revealing more about who's telling it than the events told?
The Clinton Years now begin to acquire the benign patina that nostalgia gives the past. Other presidents have benefited by the same sleight-of-time. Calvin Coolidge was hailed as a great sage once he left office and hard times hit. There was no need to go into detail about his stewardship, or wonder if the policies of the Twenties hadn't led inexorably to the crises of the Thirties.
Through nostalgia's kind lens, the Republican ascendancy during the 1920s came to be seen as a kind of Paradise Lost. The Roaring Twenties started looking like Heaven once the Depression set in. The rearview mirror filtered out everything from Teapot Dome to the gangsterism that Prohibition spawned. Only happy memories of flappers and flivvers remained in the heady afterglow of the long stock market boom that didn't go bust till 1929. Oh, if only the nation could have stuck with Silent Cal! The good times would have rolled on forever.
Today it's the Roaring Nineties that are painted in memory's bright colors now that the dot.com bubble has burst and, despite the assurances of at least one near-sighted prophet a few years back, it turns out that history isn't over after all, complete with all its murderous dangers after 9/11.
But do keep those yellow school buses streaming toward the Clinton Library from all over Arkansas, and those tourists from all over pulling into its ample parking lot. Not to mention the occasional critics paying well-photographed visits. They all kindle memories and conversation.
It turns out that the scandal-a-day Clinton Years, which never failed to give commentators something to comment on, are still good copy. Even something as mundane as a museum's annual attendance report can provide food for thought.
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