Thursday, November 18, 2004

Clinton Library Reflects Its Subject's Volatile Era

The New York Times
November 18, 2004

Clinton Library Reflects Its Subject's Volatile Era

LITTLE ROCK, Ark., Nov. 17 - Like the 42nd presidency itself, the new Clinton library here sprawls across eight years of big ambitions and small details and does not omit, but hardly dwells upon, the sex scandal that led to Bill Clinton's impeachment trial.

The William J. Clinton Presidential Center, to be dedicated on Thursday, is a futuristic glass-paneled rectangle cantilevered over the banks of the Arkansas River, evoking Mr. Clinton's metaphoric "Bridge to the 21st Century." It is a reflection of a man who famously crammed just about everything into his speeches and his presidency and has now crammed them or their facsimiles into this shrine he hopes will shape his legacy.

The displays range from the grandly institutional - including a full-size replica of the Oval Office, a duplicate Cabinet room and a 1993 black armored Cadillac limousine that Mr. Clinton used abroad - to the peculiarly Clintonian, like the sunglasses that the future president wore when he played the saxophone on "The Arsenio Hall Show" in the 1992 campaign. A sprig of ivy that was cut from a vine that grew in Mr. Clinton's actual Oval Office is now a full-fledged plant that graces the mantel in the replica office.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Clinton, who has said he spent a year reading architecture books while in the White House, was steeped in the creation of this monument. The exhibition space, shown on a press tour Wednesday, was inspired by the colonnades and alcoves of the library at Trinity College, Dublin, which captivated Mr. Clinton when he first saw them as a Rhodes scholar. Ralph Appelbaum, who designed the exhibits, called Mr. Clinton "our editor in chief, our curator in chief and even our art director at times." James S. Polshek, the architect, said the president was also "the chief cook and bottle washer."

The grounds of the library's 28-acre park, once a desolate row of abandoned warehouses and railroad tracks, contain a grove of 100 magnolia trees, where Mr. Clinton could be buried if he chooses, and where a chapel could be built. The grounds also will provide an area for picnics and cookouts in honor of two of Mr. Clinton's passions: "He loves to talk over food," said George Hargreaves, the landscape architect.

The library is the biggest of the 11 presidential libraries in the national library system, with two million photographs and 80 million pages of documents, and it is the first to store and exhibit electronic records. They add up to more than 35,686 cubic feet of records. "No one else comes close," said Susan Cooper, a spokeswoman for the National Archives, which administers the libraries. Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was president for 12 years, accumulated only 8,844 cubic feet worth of materials, she said.

This is also the most expensive of the presidential libraries. It cost $165 million, most of it donated by more than 112,000 people whose names are being etched in bricks in front of the library. The cost of maintaining it will shift on Thursday to the federal government, which spent $42 million last year to keep up the other presidential libraries.

This is also the only one to deal directly, however fleetingly, with a personal scandal. It presents Mr. Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky, a White House intern, much as his memoir did, as a personal lapse, and it casts the impeachment that resulted as a symptom of a power struggle with the Republicans in Congress.

The name Monica Lewinsky, who is not further identified, appears twice in the text of a larger exhibit called "The Fight for Power." It also contains a video in which Mr. Clinton says, "I am profoundly sorry for what I did to trigger these events." There is a picture of Susan McDougal, a Clinton friend who went to jail over the Whitewater case, but no picture of Ms. Lewinsky.

Parts of the text, such as "character assassination," "politics of persecution" and "rumors and accusations," are highlighted in yellow. And it asserts: "The impeachment battle was not about the Constitution or rule of law, but was instead about a quest for power that the president's opponents could not win at the ballot box."

A visitor can turn from the "Fight for Power" alcove on the left and find on the right a videotape of Hillary Rodham Clinton, then the first lady, and now the junior senator from New York, as she testified before Congress in 1994 on her health care plan.

That kind of incongruity captures the helter-skelter nature of the Clinton presidency and the feel of the multitiered time-line exhibits. Perhaps Mr. Clinton himself best described this quality in a discussion this summer with Oprah Winfrey. "I'm bombing Osama bin Laden's training camp and sleeping on the couch," he said of his tortured summer vacation in 1998 after admitting to the affair with Ms. Lewinsky. "It was a strange time."

Mr. Appelbaum said Mr. Clinton's aides let him know what they wanted emphasized. "This is the way the president wanted to see his legacy defined," he said.

"We have our perspective on it," said John Podesta, Mr. Clinton's chief of staff in the White House, who accompanied reporters Wednesday on the tour. Referring to Kenneth W. Starr, the federal prosecutor who pursued Mr. Clinton, Mr. Podesta added, "I'm sure that if Mr. Starr does his library, he'll have a different perspective on it."

Skip Rutherford, president of the Willliam J. Clinton Foundation, said the library had also started a collection of books, some positive and some negative, about Mr. Clinton and his presidency; so far, he added, it has 1,000 volumes.

The "bad news" borne by other presidents - the Vietnam War for President Lyndon B. Johnson, the Iran-contra scandal for President Ronald Reagan - was added to their libraries long after they opened, after history could no long honor the impulse for a rosier view. Richard M. Nixon's library, built in 1990, 17 years after his resignation, devotes a full gallery exclusively to Watergate and allows visitors to listen to the famous "smoking gun" tapes. It is not yet officially part of the presidential library system, although it is on track to become the 12th.

After the keys to the Clinton library are handed over to the National Archives on Thursday, the federal government will take control of its message. It is unclear what the federal archivists will do with the impeachment segment, but it is likely that it will evolve over time.

"It's a fine line that the federal government walks when we accept a presidential library," said Ms. Cooper, the archives' spokeswoman. "The luxury of time and the luxury of being able to look back is very different from creating an exhibition for a president who just left office. It's the difference between history and current events."