Monday, November 17, 2008

Presidential Houses--How not to lose one...

Since the election, I have been thinking about presidential houses and presidential libraries. I wonder where Barack Obama will have his. Honolulu and Chicago might be in competition. Although the Obamas’ house in Hyde Park has only belonged to them since 2005, and it is unclear whether they will be able to return to the house after their years in the White House, wouldn't it make a lovely museum? I hope that Michelle and Barack Obama think seriously about following Harry and Margaret Truman's lead. Perhaps Obama will see his neighborhood as the perfect place to entrust his legacy and library.

Harry Truman spent his retirement years walking from his house, with his assigned secret service agents, to his presidential library office a little over a mile away. Rumor is that Barack Obama likes to walk through his neighborhood, so maybe a neighborhood presidential library is in order.

With the way that the National Park Service has carefully maintained the Truman house, in Independence, Missouri, it looks as though the Trumans left after cleaning up their breakfast dishes. A wrung-out dishcloth hangs drying for perpetuity, as though it was left there after cleaning up one of the last presidential meals. This washcloth is stained and worn, and it indicates that although the President could have purchased a dishwasher and replaced the stained wallpaper in the kitchen, the Trumans were modest, frugal, and they ate at the tiny little two-person 1950s-avocado-green, Formica table like my own parents or grandparents did. House museums can say a lot about who a president is (they can also say a lot more about how we’d like to remember them). I recommend a visit to the Truman house to anyone I can. It’s the kind of place that makes you realize that a president can come from anywhere (as opposed to those grander presidential palaces).

We have wanted to see how our presidents lived since the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876, where George Washington’s Valley Forge headquarters were recreated for visitors to see. People piled in to see the reconstructed Ford Mansion where Washington’s jacket lay draped across the back of a chair, giving the impression he left it there carelessly while thinking about more important matters. The jacket across a chair back, the stained dish rag and Formica table—these are the things that help us remember that our leaders are humans just like us. These are the material traces of democracy, however staged.