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posted: 4/20/2014 5:00 AM

Editorial: It's politics before prestige in Obama library bid

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  • The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield is Illinois' only presidential library, but the state hopes to attract the Barack Obama Presidential Library as well. (AP File Photo/Seth Perlman)

      The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield is Illinois' only presidential library, but the state hopes to attract the Barack Obama Presidential Library as well. (AP File Photo/Seth Perlman)

 

If we were Laffy Taffy, we would ask this question: When isn't a 9-to-0 vote unanimous?

Answer: When Illinois politicians are counting.

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In yet another of the bizarre and almost never-ending assaults on integrity by our state government, a spokesman for the House Executive Committee announced Thursday that the panel had recommended 9-0 to kick in $100 million in tax money toward the proposed Barack Obama Presidential Library in Chicago.

Problem is, only a handful of the nine committee members were present for the vote.

"The legacy of the Obama Presidential Library shouldn't be kicked off in a cloud of controversy," said state Rep. Ed Sullivan of Mundelein, a committee member who missed the meeting and said he would have voted "no."

There's much to be said about the proposal to sweeten the bid to build the library in Chicago rather than Hawaii or New York.

First, the reflexive response: At a time when the state has trouble paying its bills, when politicians are likely to go back on their words to roll back the "temporary" income tax increase, should it be spending money it doesn't have on nonessential capital projects?

Second, the more reflective response: There's likely an economic return-on-investment in tourism dollars this library would produce. Beyond that, the Obama library belongs in Illinois, and unfortunately, communities apparently have to bid for presidential libraries like they do for the Olympics these days.

We've visited several presidential libraries and museums over the years. They've always provided a fascinating, albeit usually unbalanced, view of history.

If you've never been to one, take a drive to Springfield to view Abraham Lincoln's. It's a bit theatrical and not part of the National Archives group of presidential libraries, but a short trip and well worth the time.

Or for a slightly longer drive, you can get to Herbert Hoover's in West Branch, Iowa, or to Gerald Ford's in Grand Rapids, Mich.

In all, there are 13 presidential libraries run by the National Archives -- every president since Hoover -- as well as the Lincoln library and museum.

As Slate magazine aptly described them in a 2001 article, "Presidential libraries are hybrid creatures: part scholarly archive, part celebration, part privately funded, part run by the government. Presidential libraries are repositories for the papers and records generated by a president during his term in office. They are also museums that have permanent and temporary exhibits, lectures and seminars and gift shops."

The impact they have is substantial, inspiring an engagement with public service that is powerful and ought to be encouraged.

The legislative proposal to put money behind the effort to land the library deserves a thoughtful discussion. Let's hope we can have one sans the embarrassing shenanigans that marked its introduction.

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