Presidential library system is a national resource for Americans

Canada could learn from United States about respecting history

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The Gazette, Tuesday, July 3, 2007

If you want to know how differently Canada and the United States treat their former prime ministers and presidents, you need only look at the network of presidential libraries in the U.S. There's nothing comparable in Canada, nothing at all.

Two of the most significant presidential libraries are on the eastern seaboard, within an easy drive of Montreal, the Franklin D. Roosevelt library at Hyde Park on the Hudson River north of New York, and the John F. Kennedy library on Columbia Point in Boston.

The Roosevelt library is the most historically important of the presidential libraries in that FDR lived and worked there from 1933 to 1945, and donated his family estate while still in office. Much of the Second World War was run from there. Not only did Roosevelt sleep there, so did Churchill, typically on his way to or from meetings in Canada, such as the Quebec Summit of August 1943.

The Roosevelt library established the precedent of private philanthropy and public administration for what would become the presidential library system. Presidential libraries are built with private funds, often at universities, and usually administered by federal government agencies such as the National Archives.

The JFK library, on the University of Massachusetts campus, is typical of a presidential project partnering with a university. How it got there, rather than his own Harvard, is a long story, mostly of disagreements about space, which is in short supply in Cambridge. But it turned out for the best. The Kennedy library is almost completely surrounded by water, and the sea was an important part of Kennedy's story, from his summers at Hyannisport, to the sinking of his PT boat, to the naval blockade of the Cuban missile crisis. The exceptional setting affords a spectacular view across the harbour to downtown Boston, the city that gave Kennedy to America and the world. And the design by I.M. Pei - architect of Place Ville Marie - is a stunning achievement.

The Kennedy library is also typical in that it mixes program activities with its archival role and museum visits. It receives more than 2,000 researchers a year, who have complete access to more than eight million pages of Kennedy's papers (including the marked text of a speech by the young senator at Universite de Montreal in 1953). The JFK website is also a remarkable on-line resource, with text and audio of all his presidential speeches available at a touch of the keyboard.

It's the museum visits that sustain the library and nourish the Kennedy legacy. While it lacks the unique authenticity of the FDR estate, the JFK exhibits are in rooms off a long corridor in a representation of the West Wing of the White House, and they take you back to the 1960s. To watch a tape of one of his news conferences is to be reminded of his elegance and aplomb in defusing difficult questions with his disarming sense of humour.

Among the video highlights are the first Kennedy-Nixon debate from the 1960 campaign and Kennedy's 1961 inaugural address. The outstanding feature of the debate reel isn't Kennedy's obvious telegenic advantage over Nixon, but the civil nature of their exchanges under the extreme duress of the first-ever televised debate. As for Kennedy's inaugural address, it is a reminder of the power of rhetoric to set an agenda.

And it being the Kennedy library, the rhetorical flourishes define the man and the times. Two presidential addresses, in challenging open-air settings, stand the test of time. The first is on the space program at Rice University in Texas: "We choose to go to the moon."

And the second, before a million people in Berlin in June 1963, in which he invoked the Berlin Wall as a symbol of the many failings of communism with the powerful refrain: "Let them come to Berlin." At the height of the Cold War, he predicted the failure of the Soviet system. This was nearly a quarter century before Ronald Reagan went to Berlin and famously said: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall."

Taken together, the two speeches are a continuum. Kennedy, like Reagan, chose to confront the Soviets, but also to pursue a peaceful dialogue with them.

Reagan's Berlin speech is one of the two most memorable and most quoted of his presidency, the other being his address on the cliffs of Normandy on the 40th anniversary of D-Day in 1984. Historian Douglas Brinkley has mined this speech for a lovely book, The Boys of Pointe du Hoc. It is known as such for one short and powerful paragraph drafted by the speechwriter, Peggy Noonan: "These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc. These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. These are the heroes who helped end a war."

Brinkley notes that all of Noonan's research and drafts of the speech are available at the Reagan library in California.

Sadly, nothing like that exists in Canada. Where are Pearson's notes for his speech to the Canadian legion on the flag in 1964? Where are Trudeau's notes for his address to the nation on referendum night in 1980? Where are the drafts of Mulroney's joint address to the U.S. Congress on acid rain and free trade?

Actually, I know the answer to the last question. They're sitting in a filing cabinet in a locker in my basement. And that's not where they should be. Not at all.

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