DALE McFEATTERS Hoover library should hire Monica as docent
WASHINGTON -- The nation's 12 presidential libraries, not widely thought of as fun vacation destinations, are seeking to boost their attendance and for good reason: Attendance has fallen 13 percent over the last five years.
Visits to the Ronald Reagan library, down by 31 percent according to the Associated Press, spiked after the former president passed away in June, but dying is kind of a drastic way to increase attendance and, besides, you can't do it twice.
Instead, the libraries are looking into gimmicks to woo the public, although it could be a trick getting families off the Interstate to visit West Branch, Iowa, (pop. 2,300), the site of both Herbert Hoover's library and his place of birth.
The leader in grabbing visitors by their lapels and hauling them in the door is -- no surprise -- Bill Clinton's library in Little Rock, which formally opens this fall.
The Clinton library is already thinking ahead -- far ahead, like 100 years ahead -- when a time capsule buried recently in honor of the former president's 58th birthday will be opened.
Time capsules are notorious for getting lost or ruined, but nonetheless the library packed its with the usual weird mixture of stuff.
A personal message from Clinton urges Americans of 2104 "to work together for a safe, happy, and successful future" -- kind of frightening if they haven't thought of that on their own by then.
The capsule also includes a copy of Clinton's 957-page tome "My Life," a sign of uncharacteristic modesty since he is implicitly assuming it will be out of print by then.
And the capsule includes a cell phone. News accounts don't say whether the library preprogrammed the speed dial but one hopes they did for when the capsule is opened: "This is Zorg Thargon, emperor of the Galactic Federation. How did you get the number of the Oval Office?"
Clinton was a great admirer of Elvis Presley, so the president's collection of Elvis memorabilia will be on display -- not that this has anything to do with the American presidency -- and the library is considering packaging itself as part of a tour that includes Graceland, Presley's mansion in Memphis.
Elvis may be the go-to-guy for presidential libraries. The most popular selling item at the Nixon library is said to be a photo of an ill-at-ease Nixon in coat and tie with a stoned Elvis in full Las Vegas kit.
The Reagan library is bringing in the 707 that served as Reagan's Air Force One. This is not only of historical interest but smart marketing, too, because there is something in the American soul that loves to walk through airplanes. And there's a novelty factor. This is one plane visitors will be able to board without first removing their shoes and belts.
In boosting attendance, presidential libraries face an impossible dilemma: The reasons people want to go there are the reasons why the libraries want them there.
Like the tombs of the pharaohs, presidential libraries are designed to portray a highly laudatory account of the principal's accomplishments on Earth or, in this case, in the White House.
Visitors to the Nixon library don't want to hear about the opening to China, detente with the Soviet Union or the vast array of legislation he signed. No, they want to wallow in Watergate, listening to expletive-laden plans by the president and his men to commit burglary, arson and mayhem.
Visitors to the Gerald Ford library will sit politely while they're told how Ford almost single-handedly healed the bitterly divided nation, but then one earnest youngster will raise a hand to ask, "Is it true he couldn't walk and chew gum at the same time?"
Visitors to the Clinton library aren't terribly interested in balanced budgets, a decade of uninterrupted economic growth, a heartbreaking near miss on peace in the Mideast. No, they want Whitewater, sex, impeachment, lamp throwing.
That still leaves the problem of attendance at the Hoover library. Since the Clinton library is unlikely to do so, they could always hire Monica Lewinsky as a docent.
Scripps Howard News Service