Perhaps President Obama’s 52nd birthday yesterday may help prompt resolution of a conflict which hangs heavier with each passing day of his presidency’s remaining three and a half years. His decision will forever frame his legacy, yet is ultimately a personal choice based on that most private sense of self, a core element of identity. It’s not about race or religion but region.
The most singularly ignored yet acute assessment of President Barack Obama was made during his 2008 campaign by the one person who best understands him.
“You can’t really understand Barack,” Michelle Obama stated plainly, “until you understand Hawaii.“
The observation is especially revealing because she was born and raised in Chicago, a place which embraced Barack Obama and established his first sense of permanent foundation.
So, many wonder with a specific interest of their own, will he declare himself as being truer to Honolulu or Chicago?
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Only the private person in question, not the public presidential persona can chose one of two regional identities and thus begin the arduous process of fundraising, site location search, architectural competition, groundbreaking, building, dedication and finally the opening of the Barack Obama Presidential Library and Museum.
University officials, local citizen groups and even old childhood and high school friends in Honolulu, Hawaii, where Obama was born just two years after it became the 50th state in 1959, and in Chicago, Illinois, where he first came to work in 1985 and then settled, had begun lobbying him to designate it as locale for his library and museum.
Like those thirteen such institutions which exist for the last thirteen presidents, from Herbert Hoover to George W. Bush, the Obama Library and Museum will be built by a privately funded foundation on donated or purchased land. It will then be deeded as an outright gift to the federal government, which operates and maintains staffed by the National Archives.
The Obama Presidential Library & Museum will be the final repository for all the state gifts, donated objects, films, photographs, and hundreds of thousands of official papers and documents generated by his Administration from 2009 to 2017.
It will be not only the place where scholars, biographers and other researchers come to study the material culture of this President but also where hundreds of thousands of annual tourists will flock for exhibits, events and symposiums.
While they are all federal facilities, outreach programs, temporary exhibits, research grants and other programs are supported by the private library foundations or institutes often associated with nearby universities.
Although the President does not currently own a home in Hawaii, his half-sister and her family do; the Obama family make at least one annual vacation trip there, during the holiday season.
In Hawaii, he seeks refuge from the pressures of Washington, a familiar and unique paradise for sustenance which he introduced to his wife and daughters to and where lie memories of two generations of the maternal family which raised him.
Chicago, however, is where the President not only came into his own, first coming to work there while in law school, becoming a stirring speaker during his early career as a civic activist, entering politics a a state legislator.
It is also where he met and married his wife and found a sense of permanence and grounding through her family, and where their two daughters were born and raised.
Chicago is also where he and his family own their only house which they consider to be their only permanent home. And here too, local leaders have also long been currying favor, even putting forth various plans to ideal sites where he might consider locating his presidential library and museum.
Whether it is Hawaii or Chicago, the creation of such an institution will have a significant impact on the local economy and become a point of perpetual global interest. It’s understandable why each locale considers itself the rightful place for the permanent Obama legacy to be established.
Many journalists and biographers of Obama also look at the two different places as representing different aspects of his more interior sense of self.
There is a misunderstanding of the label “Hawaiian” among many who’ve never lived there or studied its culture. While it is popularly perceived to mean one of Pacific Island ancestry, few who identify as Hawaiian actually count native ancestors, those earliest settlers from Polynesia. With waves of immigrants from many other nations and cultures, including China, England, Japan, Germany, the Philippines, Portugal, Puerto Rico and the U.S. New England states to be “Hawaiian” really means to be of variously mixed ancestries.
In growing up here, the man who had a mother from Kansas with mostly northern European ancestry and a father from Kenya, and who would then go on to become President in 2009, was as authentically Hawaiian as his half-sister, whose father was Indonesian, or any of his grammar and high school friends with other variations to their family histories. “The opportunity that Hawaii offered—to experience a variety of cultures in a climate of mutual respect—became an integral part of my world view, and a basis for the values that I hold most dear,” he wrote.
Yet, as he further explained in his memoirs, in later coming to the mainland U.S. to attend college first in California and New York, law school in Massachusetts, and then settling down in Illinois, Barack Obama had his first personal experiences of being perceived as “black,” and it helped him in deciding to identify as African-American. In a similar sense, Reagan identified as Irish though just his father was of Irish ancestry and FDR as Dutch even though he had more ancestors from England than Holland.
Thus, many will likely find even greater meaning beyond the geographical location which President Obama finally choses for his presidential library and museum.
That one of his two choices is not part of the contiguous states and such a far distance from the other possible site makes his pending decision seem all the more dramatic.
Arguments about the upside or downside of each possible choice continue to be heard. Hawaii would provide that state with a greater sense of inclusion to a national culture which still focuses primarily on the Eastern seaboard, and lure many visitors away from the surfing beaches and volcano tours for at least a day into a new museum. Others feel that it might prove too costly a distant outpost of the National Archives presidential library system.
An Illinois location might serve as an anchor for urban renewal, depending on the area of Chicago which might be chosen, and be easier to manage as it is within relative closeness to existing presidential libraries in Iowa (Hoover), Kansas (Eisenhower), Missouri (Truman) and Ford (Michigan).
Yet that is reason enough for some to find it a regional bias in basing another presidential library in the Midwest. A potential Obama Library in Hawaii would, after all, only be five hours from the Los Angeles region locations of the Reagan and Nixon libraries.
Some Presidents have had such a strong regional identity, being born in a particular state and also elected to the White House while still residents in there, that there was never any such choice as the one Obama faces: Franklin Roosevelt was born and elected from New York, Truman from Missouri, Kennedy from Massachusetts, Lyndon Johnson from Texas, Nixon from California, Carter from Georgia and Clinton from Arkansas.
By whatever factor a President choses to most closely identify with a region of the U.S., it does ultimately remain a more emotional rather than fact-based decision.
Reagan, who was born, raised and educated in Illinois never considered that state as the location for his presidential library and museum; he migrated from there to not so much live in the Golden State where he served a Governor but became Californian. There was no question that it was where his legacy would be based.
George Bush (now widely but retroactively referred to with the cumbersome initials of “H.W.”) also identifies as “Texan.” His presidential library and museum is also in the Lone Star State, yet perhaps because he so closely identifies with the Kennebunkport, Maine compound that has been in his family for three generations and where he’s spent part of every year of his life, he carries a persona more Yankee than cowboy.
Most would never identify his son George W. Bush as anything but “Texan,” as he does for himself, but he was actually born in Connecticut, while Dwight D. Eisenhower was born there, despite nobody ever perceiving him as Texan, especially Ike himself. By acculturation, Eisenhower was Midwestern, raised in Kansas.
Even after purchasing his first home, the loved Gettysburg, Pennsylvania farmhouse he bought before elected President and lived in for the rest of his life, “home” always meant Abilene, Kansas. Even before he was elected President and was still the five-star General and World War II hero, there were plans made for a museum there in his honor.
Ford was actually born in Nebraska but had no memories of home being anywhere except Michigan. His library is actually based in Ann Arbor and his museum in Grand Rapids. Perhaps this might serve as a model for Obama, locating a library in Chicago and a museum in Honolulu – or vice versa.
The only President whose library and museum location was chosen after his presidency, Herbert Hoover faced a challenge similar to Obama.
His successor Franklin D. Roosevelt first created his own presidential library in 1941 while he was still president; in donating it to the government, he helped established what is now known as the presidential library system, a division of the National Archives and Records Administration.
Hoover was already a former President when he had to figure out what to do with the ultimate fate of his papers from before, during and after his presidency.
Hoover had been born and spent enough of his early years in Iowa to have felt affinity for the rural town of West Branch, enough so that he always identified himself culturally, at least, an Iowan.
Yet upon the death of both his parents, Hoover was then raised in northern California, attended Stanford University in Palo Alto there, and always considered it his home base. He was elected President from California and then retired there, before later splitting his time between Palo Alton and New York. Still, Hoover was seen as a Californian and considered himself one, or rather an Iowan-Californian.
In the last months of his presidency, his West Branch, Iowa birthplace had been saved and restored; eventually village buildings there during his childhood were also restored, making it more of an historic complex.
Although the former President had already donated many of his papers to the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and planned to donate more, a dispute with the university changed his mind, thus leading to the establishment of the Hoover Library and Museum in Iowa, dedicated in 1962, just two years before his death.
Obama is cautiously attempting to avoid state feuding over the matter by putting off a final decision thus far.
Eager University of Chicago officials had implored him just after his first inauguration to base his library there, acting perhaps a bit too aggressively.
His reaction was that even considering a library then was far too premature and refused to give it any serious consideration at the time. According to his friend and a University of Chicago Medical Center executive Dr. Eric Whitaker, the new President was then even musing over the idea of a “virtual library that wouldn’t idolize him.”
Just after his second inauguration earlier this year, the President was again asked about it – and took a pass: “It is a tough choice, but it’s not one that I’ve made yet.”
Some suggest that a December 2011 meeting where University of Chicago officials were in touch with the director of presidential libraries and obtained guidelines for the required architectural and design standards of the institutions signaled some sort of deal was already in motion with Chicago as the choice.
Several potential sites, one both close to the University of Chicago, and one that has been proposed earlier as a potential railroad museum, are being considered by the Illinois advocates.
University of Hawaii officials, however, have visited all the presidential libraries and met with officials there.
The Governor of Hawaii is behind the effort to win the Obama library and museum for his state and the legislature has passed two resolutions imploring the President to chose his birthplace, it being “a matter of great state pride.”
Hawaii has already reserved a breathtaking peninsula with ocean views, worth about $75 million and said to be the very last parcel of undeveloped Honolulu, in preparedness for what it hopes will be the future Barack Obama Presidential Library and Museum.
Does the President seem to be leaning in one direction or the other?
“Honolulu is my birthplace. It’s the place where I grew up, and I met so many friends and fond memories, and it helped to shape me, so I’d like to find a way that after my presidency that connection remains,” the President cautiously told a KITV television reporter during a December 2012 interview. “But, you know, I live in Chicago now, and that’s where I grew up professionally.”
There is one other factor to be seriously considered in the final decision, however it may be z forecast into eternity. Except for JFK and LBJ, every President with a library and museum has been buried on or near the grounds there.
- Report: University explores bid for Obama presidential library (thehill.com)
- Race, class emerge in battle over Obama library (usatoday.com)
- Obama turns 52, celebrates out of sight at Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland (vancouversun.com)
- Report: Obama appoints advisers to spearhead library search (thehill.com)
- UH Mānoa and partners await President’s decision on Presidential Center (prgnewshawaii.com)
- Sorry, Chicago, but Obama’s museum belongs here (sj-r.com)
- Happy Birthday, Mr. President: Obama turns 52 (news.yahoo.com)