American Presidents caress the tender ear of memory. We regard them as extended members of the family -- by turn giants or mediocrities, always household words. Presidential Libraries help complete the portrait -- daubing what they were, and are.
The first Presidential Library, Rutherford B. Hayes's, opened in 1916. Next came Franklin Roosevelt's a quarter-century later -- followed by Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Hoover, Johnson, Kennedy, Ford, Carter, Nixon, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush’s, in order of dedication. All retrace defeat and even tragedy -- also triumph, statecraft, and America's almost Tinker Bell kind of faith.
Windows on the White House (Diamond Communications, 1997, 256 pages, $29.95) etches these Libraries -- their background, mission, similarities, and contrasts. Visiting each, former Presidential Speechwriter Curt Smith tells how they reflect their subject -- a metaphor of the man. "Hearing George Bush," he writes, "Andy Hardy lilted through the mind." Like Tolstoy, "War and Peace remains FDR's bequest."
Here is the story of how Presidential Libraries came to be -- and photographs of the buildings, exhibits, and Presidents and their families. Here are prominent visitors, directions, hours, and dedication remarks -- and lyric essays on each former President and his Library. Smith writes of the Kennedy Library on Boston Harbor: "Forever -- the Young Man and the Sea."
Each year, an estimated 1.5 million people visit West Branch, say, or Hyde Park, Austin, or Abilene. Their lure is oral history passed from one generation to the next. Fairly, even poetically, Windows on the White House suggests what the Libraries say about their namesakes – and what the Presidents say about us.