July 31, 2015

Rick Perlstein: How the University of Chicago scored the Obama presidential library

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ObamafoundationAny story about the convergence of libraries and real estate development tends to end the same way: libraries pushed out—or undermined—by real estate interests. But in the case of the forthcoming Obama presidential library (formally, the Barack Obama Presidential Center), which will be built in Chicago, it’s the library that’ll be doing the pushing out.

In the latest issue of The Baffler, America’s most pugnacious magazine, the historian and journalist Rick Perlstein writes about the rather unsavory process that led to the Obama Foundation’s decision to select not just Chicago, but either Washington Park or Jackson Park on the city’s south side—both sites very much in the University of Chicago’s orbit. “Like so many things Obamian,” Perlstein writes, “when it comes to transparency, fantasies of reform turn to ashes in our mouths.”

Perlstein reports that there were a number of proposals for different sites in Chicago—the University of Illinois, Chicago State University, Bronzeville, and the site of U.S. Steel’s shuttered South Works Mill, all of which might have sent a positive message about Obama’s longstanding relationship with the city and his commitment to its future. So, why were these proposals put aisde?

What they lacked was a certain unspoken qualification that true Chicago political hands knew trumped all the rest: the rejected proposals did not sit within the footprint of where the mighty University of Chicago planned to expand its sphere of control.

Perlstein’s massive article explores not just the incestuous political and economic ties between the university, the city of Chicago, its financial elite, and Obama’s inner circle (oh, and—of course—Rahm Emanuel), but also the larger story of America’s presidential libraries. These institutions are overseen only perfunctorily and occupy a strange not-quite-public, not-quite-private space, and this ambiguity gives them a lot of room to be, as Perlstein says, “quite nearly structurally Nixonian.”

But the best—and most upsetting—parts of the piece are about the new library itself—a monument not just to the president, but to institutional corruption, backroom politicking, and a long and sordid history of gentrification. Read the entire—excellent—piece! It will not cheer you up.

Mark Krotov was a senior editor at Melville House.

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