Windows on the White House

Presidential Libraries have helped paint the historical portrait of many past occupants of the Oval Office. Today, the National Archives operates 13 libraries under the Presidential Library System. The 14th, Barack Obama’s, is scheduled to open this decade.

Franklin Roosevelt’s library was dedicated in 1941. From 1957 to 1997, libraries of Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Hoover, Johnson, Kennedy, Ford, Carter, Nixon, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush followed, in order of dedication. Bill Clinton’s opened in 2004; George W. Bush’s, 2013. All retrace defeat and even tragedy—also triumph, statecraft, and an almost Tinker Bell kind of faith.

Windows on the White House (Diamond Communications, 1997, 256 pages) etches these libraries’ background, mission, similarities, and contrasts. Visiting each, former presidential speechwriter Curt Smith tells how they have reflected their subject: a metaphor of the man. Like Tolstoy, he writes, “War and Peace remains FDR’s bequest.”

Herein are photographs of buildings, exhibits, and presidents and their families, a litany of prominent visitors, directions, hours, and dedication remarks—and essays on each former president and his library. The author writes of the Kennedy Library on Boston Harbor: “Forever, the Young Man and the Sea.”

By latest count, an estimated 2.5 million people per year visit, say, West Branch or Hyde Park, Austin or Abilene. Their lure is oral history passed from one generation to the next. Windows on the White House suggests what the libraries say about their namesakes—and what the presidents say about us.