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The price isn't right

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If things get really bad, Bill Clinton may think about blaming some of his fund-raising problems on Franklin Roosevelt. After all, it was F.D.R. who started the trend toward big-time presidential libraries that has Clinton trying to raise $150 million to build his center in Little Rock, Ark. Before F.D.R., the most your typical President could look forward to was a shack with a plaque. When he left office, he held on to his papers. But F.D.R., who invented the modern presidency, also invented the modern presidential library. In 1939 he bequeathed his papers to the government and donated part of his Hyde Park, N.Y., estate for a library. In 1955, Congress passed the Presidential Libraries Act, which created a public-private partnership: an ex-President would raise money to build his library, but Washington would pick up most of the tab for maintaining the documents housed there. (This year the Federal Government will spend about $38 million on the libraries.) Subsequent acts guaranteed that such documents would be made public. "They're an invaluable resource," says L.B.J. biographer Robert Dallek.

Today there are 10 presidential libraries, not counting the still disputed Nixon papers, which are housed in a suburban Washington warehouse, and Clinton's planned facility. But the library is now just part of a former President's operation. Attached to the libraries are privately funded museums and foundations. These have become minor tourist attractions (presidential libraries combined get some 2 million visitors annually) and, in some cases, major employment programs for the ex-Presidents' pals. Because the presidency keeps getting bigger, so do the libraries. Gerald Ford's library has more documents than F.D.R.'s. No wonder Presidents leave office with a tin cup in hand. "They've become mendicants in some ways," says a presidential-library official. L.B.J. got the Texas legislature to help fund his; George Bush received $1 million each from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. And Clinton is hoping to hustle contributions well north of $1 million a pop. The President as rainmaker--that's a role Clinton knows all too well.



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Cover Date: February 26, 2001

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