by Grant Moser
“You’ve clearly never been a lawyer,” explained Lafayette Hill resident David Cross, 49, when asked why he stopped being an attorney to write a book about the presidents. “Chasing History: One Man’s Road Trip Through the Presidential Libraries” is the just-released book about his journey to all 13 official presidential libraries.
After working as a criminal lawyer for 20 years, he felt he had seen everything the justice system had to offer. It also helped that an ebook he wrote entitled “How Not To Think Like a Lawyer” did very well on Kindle. So he decided to listen to an idea in the back of his mind about visiting all of the presidential libraries in one road trip and chronicling the experience.
The writing encompasses both his visits to each library and his observations along the three-month road trip. He took care in not making it interesting only for presidential history buffs or for one political leaning. “I want to encourage people to visit one of these places,” he said. “Rather than do a snarky book, I wanted to interest people in visiting them, learning about them and using that as a starting point.”
From July through September of 2011, Cross traveled the country. He spent about a week at each library, looking through the archives, visiting the museum. He found each site very idiosyncratic; some neutral, some partisan, some informative, others not.
The idea of a presidential library originated with FDR, who envisioned one institute with all the papers from his administration. Prior to his library, presidential papers would be scattered in various institutes, libraries and universities around the country. Even though the idea is recognized as beneficial today for research, when FDR proposed the idea, he faced stiff opposition from Congressmen who felt it was a self-serving memorial. The popular concept of the libraries as a vanity project continues today. Cross was interested in finding out if the libraries were objective or showed only the president’s perspective. He found that each library deals with it in their own way.
For example, the Franklin Roosevelt Library is extremely objective; Cross found documentation of people who criticized him and the New Deal, his record with the Holocaust and Japanese internment, and even the romantic rumors about him and his wife. On the other hand, the Kennedy Library focused on his charm, the parties he attended and his inaugural speech. There was no mention of the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam or his romantic affairs.
Cross decided to take each library as its own universe, trying not to compare them to each other. “The libraries are trying to let you see from the president’s perspective, which is necessary to understand him, whether you like him or not. You begin to realize that every president is playing a sport that no one in the world has ever played. You can’t compare these guys to each other because they’re each dealing with their own specific circumstances. I went as a traveler exploring history.”
He found something he hadn’t expected at the Reagan Library. There were video games where the player shot down regulations, and a game of LIFE where everyone makes money because Reagan is president. There is a decommissioned Air Force One you can tour, even a pub shipped in from Ireland that he visited that had his family name.
What surprised him, however, was how much Reagan wrote his own speeches in the beginning of his administration. He’d change his speechwriter’s attempts and make them better, more understandable and more elegant. Then there was the speech where he first mentioned “The Evil Empire.”
The State Department didn’t want him to use that term, so he put it in a speech he gave in a little town in Florida; it was buried on the 10th page to keep anyone from noticing it. Cross remembers thinking “this guy is crazy” when he heard the speech in the 1980s. At the library he read about a Jewish dissident in prison in Russia who was given a smuggled-in copy of the speech. “He was in solitary but told the guy next to him in Morse Code through the wall what it said. It never occurred to me there’s some guy in a Russian prison who is going to get hope from this.”
On a lighter note, he found that one of his favorite presidential anecdotes wasn’t true. The child of a Johnson aide swallowed a whole bottle of aspirins and was rushed to the hospital. That led to LBJ’s administration creating child-proof tops for medicine. “I love this story; my daughter used it on her college application. But sure enough, that’s not how it happened. LBJ wanted to, but caved to the pharmaceutical industry. Nixon was the one who eventually got it passed. What’s even more funny is that Nixon couldn’t open the child-proof tops.”
As valuable as the libraries are to research and history, the newer ones don’t have as much information as the ones built prior to Watergate. Nixon argued that his White House tapes should have to be vetted through the National Security Council before being made public, and that set the precedent for all future presidents. The only way to request a document and have it stored in the library is to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). That means many recent presidents don’t have much material in their archives since it hasn’t been cleared.
Cross attempted to see letters written by Nixon to George H.W. Bush about the USSR. The letters have been discussed publicly, there have been books written on them, and the Cold War is long over, but it took a year after he filed a FOIA to receive a reply. All it said was that they were looking into it. He hasn’t heard anything else since.
“Because we’re in such a litigious world, presidents are wary of what they write down. Taylor Branch, who wrote about Martin Luther King, Jr., was asked by Clinton to help him leave a record of what happened during his time in the White House. So he snuck in under false names and would tape-record the president about what had happened. He had to keep it top secret because they were scared of subpoenas and so forth. It’s harder for presidents, even if they want to, to create a history,” he explained.
When he visited the Clinton Library, Cross found the place crammed with exhibits and memorabilia, but hardly anything in the archives. As the FOIA requests are filed and approved, documents become available; it was just too soon after his time in office. He did look at what requests had been submitted, and the first one asked which cabinet members watched The X-Files. Someone wanted to know.
Cross enjoyed his trip and came out of it with a better appreciation for the difficult role a president plays. “The problem we have now is not over-idealizing our presidents; instead we think they’re all idiots. It’s good to go to a library and think about the issues from a different standpoint. I knew nothing about Hoover apart from from high school, and I learned a lot about the Depression I didn’t know. I also saw how Hoover was unfairly portrayed in what he was trying to do at the time. The archivists were funny too; working at the library of one of the most despised presidents will do that. One of them said, ‘Welcome to the third world of presidential libraries.’
“I left almost all of the libraries with a better impression of the president, after I really was able to think about them in calm circumstances rather than when they were president. I sort of had a context of what they were trying to do. They were all extraordinary men -— not good men or good presidents — but extraordinary men,” he said.
Cross is currently working on a book about Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln. He is giving a presentation at the Nixon Library on May 3 and the Roosevelt Library on June 21. For more about the book, visit www.chasingthepresident.com.