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Published: Sunday, 11/21/2004

The Clinton library

Every outgoing president in recent decades has sought to leave a legacy in one way or another, one reason that their libraries and museums have expanded in cost and size over the years.

Now it is William Jefferson Clinton's turn, and on a rainy day in Little Rock, Ark., his $165 million presidential center was dedicated.

Three men who know the Oval Office intimately, including the incumbent, George W. Bush, were on hand to pay tribute to the 42nd president. For a few hours at least, cordiality reigned across party lines. Americans need more occasions like this, especially after an election marked by partisan bitterness and an increasingly poisonous political atmosphere in Washington, D.C.

The 41st president, George H.W. Bush, struck just the right note when he said: "Of course, it always has to be said that Bill Clinton was one of the most gifted American political figures in modern times. Trust me, I learned this the hard way." His son, the President, recounted the words of a Clinton admirer who said: "Son, he'll look you in the eye, he'll shake your hand, he'll hold your baby, he'll pet your dog - all at the same time."

Mr. Clinton responded in kind, saying that George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry were both good people who "just see the world differently."

Hillary Clinton alluded to the physical properties of the new library, on the banks of the Arkansas River. "It is like my husband - it's open, it's expansive, it's welcoming, it's filled with life."

Expansive it certainly is. One cannot fault critics who wonder if there will be any end to the edifice complex that causes presidential libraries to be built.

Even so, presidential libraries are a worthwhile investment. Built by private contributions, they are operated as public entities, and in a nation often too careless with its history, this is a definite plus. They are built, after all, for people to visit, so while the kids look in awe at the replica of the Oval Office, their elders may be looking at more substantive displays.

The new library does not attempt to hide the Monica Lewinsky affair, although it recounts the episode in a defensive manner.

It is hard to know just what visitors will make of the new presidential center; perhaps they will notice the lack of cataclysmic historical events that mark and make so compelling the libraries devoted to Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower. Some may find fault with a system that packages a whole presidential career in such a way as to remove it from its historical context.

But that's quibbling. A presidential library is as much a celebration of the presidency - and America - as the individual whose name it bears.



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