Fred A. Bernstein

Who Should Pay for Presidential Posterity?

Endowments for the presidential libraries are coming up short

Published in The New York Times, June 10, 2004

EVEN before Ronald Reagan built his library on a California hilltop, where thousands of mourners filed past his coffin this week, costs of maintaining presidential libraries had become a political issue. A 1986 law, supported by Mr. Reagan, required the private foundations that built future libraries to set up endowments to defray the expenses.

But the law has done little to ease taxpayers' burden. The George H. W. Bush library, in College Station, Tex., costs over $3 million a year to operate. But its $4.5 million endowment - the first endowment required under the 1986 law - produces income of less than $200,000 per year, according to an official of the National Archives and Records Administration, which owns and runs 10 presidential libraries.

Under a plan that the archives turned over to Congressional leaders last month, the endowment for the $175 million Clinton library will be $7.2 million. That would pay about $300,000 of an expected $4 million in upkeep costs in its first year of operation, said another Sharon Fawcett, deputy assistant archivist for presidential libraries.

That is less than one-tenth the cost of operating the building. The archives will pick up the rest of the costs of maintenance for the library and museum. Entry fees will be used for public programs.

The reasons for the shortfalls are partly financial (interest rates are low), partly political (the law didn't require large enough endowments) and partly architectural (libraries are getting grander).

At the time the bill was passed, the late Senator Lawton Chiles, a Florida Democrat, complained that the costs of operating the facilities had "ballooned" from $64,000 in 1955 to about $15 million in 1985. Last year, the presidential libraries under federal control cost nearly $42 million to run.

When the 1986 law was being debated, Representative William Clinger, Republican of Pennsylvania, said it would "drastically reduce the enormous costs associated with maintaining the presidential library facilities." Congress even considered the possibility that the income from a library's endowment could exceed the operating costs and create a surplus.

The law required that the foundations raise an endowment equal to 20 percent of the cost of building the federal portion of the project.

The endowment for the $83 million Bush library is less than $4.5 million. The law was amended last year to double the endowment for the libraries of presidents elected after George W. Bush, to 40 percent of the federal portion of the project.

Yesterday, Senator Byron L. Dorgan, author of the 2003 amendment, said in an interview that "the costs are growing dramatically as libraries become larger and larger."

He continued, "I think the libraries are wonderful resources for the American people, but I think there need to be some reasonable limits on how much burden the American taxpayer is expected to bear."

He added of the increase in endowment that, "as a practical matter, 40 percent was what I thought we could get done."

Back in the 80's, Senator Chiles tried unsuccessfully to require former presidents to contribute earnings from their memoirs to their libraries.

Asked what Mr. Clinton had contributed to the library, Skip Rutherford, the president of the Clinton foundation, said, "Sweat equity."

In an e-mail response to questions, Mr. Clinton's press representative, Jim Kennedy, said the former president had made personal gifts to the foundation and "on a number of occasions, he has asked that in lieu of being paid for a speech, the funds should go to his foundation."

Mr. Rutherford said the library was an overall benefit to the country.

"This is a great deal for the government," he said. "How often does someone build a building and give it to the taxpayers with an endowment?"

Presidential libraries are invaluable to scholars, said Robert A. Caro, who won the Pulitzer Prize last year for the third volume of his biography of Lyndon B. Johnson. "They are becoming a very significant repository of our memory," he said.

"It's true that they have become vast public relations enterprises," he said, "but, for scholars, there is almost nothing you can't find there, if you are willing to look hard enough."

Since Herbert Hoover's 4,000-square-foot library opened in West Branch, Iowa, in 1962, presidential libraries have grown considerably. Mr. Clinton's is 40 times bigger than Hoover's was at that time.

Senator Chiles had hoped to cap the size of presidential libraries. The law contains a substantial financial penalty for buildings larger than 70,000 square feet. Yet under the plan presented to Congress last month, no penalty will be charged for the much larger Clinton building.

That's because the Clinton foundation plans to retain control of about half of the building, including the gift shop, cafeteria and meeting rooms and an apartment on the top floor. The government will take title to the archives and museum, which total some 69,000 square feet - just under the 70,000 square-foot cutoff - and will run the mechanical spaces and public restrooms.

Congress can object to the Clinton library plan and prevent the archives from taking possession. But Ms. Fawcett, who has been with the archives for 35 years, said, "There is a very strong possibility that we will hear nothing from Congress."

"There are a lot of members of Congress who would like to be president someday," Ms. Fawcett suggested, "and they want to have their own presidential libraries."