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U. of C. quietly making push for Obama library

University Chicago President Robert Zimmer | John H. White~Sun-Times

University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer | John H. White~Sun-Times

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Updated: January 3, 2013 11:00AM

WASHINGTON — The University of Chicago is quietly stepping up its push to land President Barack Obama’s presidential library, I was told Saturday.

Top U. of C. honchos are “trying to figure out how to encourage the president and first lady to make the University of Chicago a serious contender,” I was told by a source who is knowledgeable about developments to win the library for the U. of C.

University President Robert Zimmer is very interested in securing the library, I was told. Susan Sher, a senior adviser to Zimmer and former chief of staff to first lady Michelle Obama, “has been traveling and looking at other [presidential] libraries,” I was told. Sher, who is also an executive vice president for corporate strategy and public affairs at the U. of C. Medical Center, declined comment when I contacted her on Saturday.

The university has been making a below-the-radar play for the library for years — self-imposing a muzzle for fear of angering the Obama White House and re-election team that did not want to jeopardize his campaign by looking presumptuous.

With the election over — and a timetable in place for Obama to leave office — jockeying for the library is expected to break out in the open. Politico reported about Sher’s involvement in the U. of C. library drive on Saturday.

The Obama family and many in their personal, political and donor orbit have close ties to the U. of C.

Obama was a lecturer at the law school; Mrs. Obama was an executive at the U. of C. Medical Center, and their daughters attended the Lab School. Close friend and White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett is a former chair of the U. of C. Board of Trustees.

Last July, the Sun-Times reported on concerns raised by U. of C. political science professor Charles Lipson, who worried that a presidential library “would not be a disinterested, scholarly institution,” instead advancing a political agenda. U. of C. officials tapped law school Professor Geoffrey Stone to consider Lipson’s concerns.

Presidential libraries — part museum, part archive — have evolved through the years; there are now 13 of them in the system overseen by the National Archives and Records Administration. The libraries are in essence public-private partnerships with massive private fund-raising needed to bankroll construction. Obama is said to not relish the prospect of having to raise money for a presidential library.

Journalist Jonathan Alter — a Chicago native — in his book “The Promise,” about Obama’s first year, revealed that Obama was mulling an “online library.”

Wrote Alter, “In the fall of 2009 University of Chicago officials approached the White House about housing Obama’s presidential library. They were told it was too early. To the extent that he had thought about a library, he mused to a friend that maybe it should be an “online library,” not bricks-and-mortar. This almost certainly won’t happen; the demand for a splashy museum will likely be too great. But it said something about his state of mind.”

Obama was born in Hawaii, was partly raised there and the University of Hawaii has been campaigning for the library openly for years.

Where would an Obama library be located? Locations I hear mentioned are west of the U. of C. campus near Washington Park and at the old Michael Reese Hospital compound.

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