Exhibiting Controversy

imageYou have to look hard in the William J. Clinton Presidential Library & Museum in Little Rock to find the most memorable event of his presidency.

Champa and I loved the library, which has impressive displays about how his administration dealt with the economy, foreign affairs, the environment and other issues. There are replicas of the Oval Office and the Cabinet Room, a glittering table set with White House china and a powerful video recounting the first presidential campaign.image

However, the impeachment battle is limited to a single alcove that emphasizes Republican partisanship. There’s no photo of Monica Lewinsky, no “it depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is” and no real acknowledgement that Clinton did anything wrong that might have brought on the Republican attacks. Our tour guide pointed out the exhibit, quickly, and then glided us past it.

I voted for Bill Clinton twice and admire most aspects of his presidency and subsequent career. I opposed his impeachment at the time and am glad he remained in office. Nonetheless, I was disappointed by how his library dealt with the impeachment battle, presumably at his direction. It felt evasive and self-serving, at least to me.

imageI found it to be in sharp contrast with the History Museum of Mobile, Alabama, which we visited three days earlier. Much to our surprise, that museum included an extensive display about the city’s legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. The display encouraged visitors to try on some of the heavy leg irons worn by slaves and to consider the prices white residents of Mobile paid for slaves of different sexes and ages.

IMG_2781When we were in Austin a few days before that, we visited the LBJ Presidential Library. Although less polished and engaging than Clinton’s, the LBJ library included a substantial exhibit about Vietnam. Not surprisingly, the exhibit emphasized the uncertainties and political pressures Johnson faced in the conflict, as well as the toll it took on him and his family. But it made clear that Johnson made mistakes and bears at least some responsibility for what occurred.

imageWhile we were in Little Rock, Champa and I also visited the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site, which is across the street from where one of the great battles of the Civil Rights Movement unfolded as a shocked national audience watched on television. A guide took us and another couple into the school, where the diverse current students recently returned from summer vacation. We paused at several of the spots where the story took place, imagining the screaming white mobs, federal troops and black students whose brave steps changed history. The exhibit hall displayed the white racism in all of its ugliness, even though some of the participants still live in the city today.

Having worked in communications for many years, I know how challenging it can be for people and institutions to deal forthrightly with controversial topics. I certainly didn’t expect the Clinton Library to display the blue dress or Monica’s beret. However, I was hoping for a bit more self-reflection and humility, especially now that so many years have passed, and thought such a presentation would have made the “Republican partisanship!” spin more believable. Apparently not.

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