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Editorial: Obama museum site isn’t academic

University Chicago political science Professor Charles Lipsargues thBarack Obama's presidential library would be out place university thprides itself disinterested scholarship.

University of Chicago political science Professor Charles Lipson argues that Barack Obama's presidential library would be out of place at a university that prides itself on disinterested scholarship. | John H. White~Sun-Times

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Updated: July 26, 2012 6:12AM

Presidential libraries and museums tend to soft-soap their presidents, celebrating accomplishments and downplaying scandals. Politics trumps scholarship.

It was years before Watergate got an honest airing at the Nixon library. The Iran-contra scandal doesn’t get much play at the Reagan library. Monica Lewinsky is kept firmly in her place at the Clinton museum.

You can bet the same will be true for the Barack Obama Presidential Library, when its time comes, which is why the University of Chicago should politely but firmly squelch all efforts to establish the library on its campus. The University of Chicago, precisely because it prizes free and open debate and scholarship, is a national leader among academic institutions in its insistence on institutional neutrality on public policy issues. Any presidential library, given its inevitable celebratory nature, would be inconsistent with such academic integrity.

Let’s be clear: We think Obama’s presidential library belongs in Chicago, his adopted home.

We think it belongs on the South Side, where he first ran for elective office.

We think it might even make sense to put the library in Hyde Park, not far from the campus where Obama once taught constitutional law, allowing for easy and ready access by college students and researchers.

But we have to agree with University of Chicago political science Professor Charles Lipson, who is sounding the alarm on this issue, that an Obama presidential center would be out of place at a university that prides itself on disinterested scholarship.

“To me it’s not a left or right issue,” Lipson told us. “I don’t think I’d have different position if this were the Reagan library.”

Presidential libraries are funded and managed by the federal Office of Presidential Libraries. A representative for the office says it does its best to present materials “as accurately as possible, not favoring one side or another.” But anybody who has visited a few of the system’s 13 libraries knows that a certain home-team bias usually creeps in, especially in the museum exhibits.

Moreover, many of the activities of the libraries — speeches and panel discussions and the like — are funded by their individual foundations, which is where the homers move right up front. As Lipson pointed out in a story Sunday by Chicago Sun-Times reporter Abdon Pallasch, the Reagan library in California tends to schedule conservative speakers and serves as a launching pad for Republican ideas, whereas the Kennedy and Carter libraries in Boston and Atlanta attract liberal speakers and serve as launching pads for Democratic ideas.

Unfortunately in recent years, critics say, the University of Chicago already has jumped into ideological waters. The university established the Friedman Institute four years ago, named for free-market guru Milton Friedman, which skeptics dismiss as a right-wing think tank. And Obama’s chief campaign strategist, David Axelrod, is setting up an Institute of Politics on campus, which skeptics have a tough time believing will be nonpartisan.

We can’t say it enough: The Obama Presidential Library belongs in Chicago. Hawaii wants it, sure, but Hawaii is far away. Anybody who manages to get there wants to surf and drink mai tais, not thumb through old White House memos.

And, without a doubt, what a boon an Obama library would be anywhere on Chicago’s South Side.

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