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Build libraries, but be wary of monuments
We don't seem to have succumbed to the wily charms of our Speakers of the House or our Chief Justices in quite the same way, so to mark the study of a particular era by the name of the Chief Executive is a basic compromise with reality.
As a general rule, public facilities shouldn't be named after people who are still living. No matter how honorable the person's behavior up until the time of a christening, there's always time for that same individual to go off the rails and discredit their own names (and any facilities or institutions named after them). We can honor living people in lots of ways, and certainly it may seem unfair to withhold an honor like naming a building, a bridge, or a battleship after a person until they have passed, but that simple limitation acts as a useful brake on the process -- giving historians and others at least a little bit of time to consider the ramifications of a person's legacy (and, perhaps, to uncover disqualifying behavior that might have evaded the spotlight during a person's life). The private sector can name what it likes, and there may be a case for exchanging naming rights for donations or sponsorship funding.
■ But in the case of naming facilities merely as an honor, this rule would have prohibited naming airports after Presidents George Bush or Bill Clinton during their lives, or an expressway after Senator Robert Byrd. A worthy exception to this rule, however, is the naming of Presidential libraries.
■ The practice of building Presidential libraries is a relatively modern one; they've only been deliberately built since Herbert Hoover. And inasmuch as a Presidential library acts as a living yearbook for the country, it serves a certain public good that is hard to delineate other than by Presidential administrations. We don't seem to have succumbed to the wily charms of our Speakers of the House or our Chief Justices in quite the same way, so to mark the study of a particular era by the name of the Chief Executive is a basic compromise with reality.
■ As ground is being broken on the Obama Presidential Center, it's worth noting that the 44th President is the first to direct a digital library instead of a physical one. The center is envisioned as a museum and community center instead. Insofar as it is being funded through private donations, a case can be made for that choice.
■ Yet there's a risk that something important may be lost if we develop a habit of putting former Presidents at the center of movements that must go on, rather than subjecting them to careful academic study -- and even close scrutiny. Part of this, of course, is a derivative of President Obama's relative youth -- born in 1961, he finished his Presidency well before normal retirement age and consequently seems to feel a relatively youthful drive to keep doing things. But a President who becomes a movement is a very different thing from the model of Cincinnatus returning to the plow.
■ Former Presidents have never been entirely silent -- Hoover remained a vocal critic of FDR and lived to chair commissions for Truman and Eisenhower. Carter continued to conduct "private diplomacy" into the 2000s. Taft went on to get the job he really wanted -- Chief Justice. John Quincy Adams just went back to Congress.
■ But there's some hazard to the notion that Presidencies must endure somehow after the Constitutional term is complete. We already invest far too much weight in the Presidency, and if we never stop to deliberately fix Presidents with a place in history -- subject to criticism and rehabilitation alike -- then we very much entertain the possibility that Americans will want to adhere too closely to "their" Presidents, even when someone new is in office. Former Presidents ought to be a source of wisdom, cohesion, and support for their successors and their country. But we shouldn't be hesitant to place the priority on fixing their place in history rather than scrambling to enlarge their place in the present. The one you like may be followed by the one you despise.