The battle over the Barack Obama Museum and Library just got geographical

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has told Chicagoans that he's prepared to move 'heaven and earth' to win them the museum

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The Independent Online

It isn’t clear if presidential libraries, a uniquely American phenomenon, serve any particular public purpose beyond burnishing the reputations of the Commander-in-Chiefs they worship.

But have them we must, it seems, and cities actually fall over themselves to win the chance to snag one. Thus, Chicago for the past few weeks has been in a veritable spasm of chip-on-shoulder, second-city paranoia as it tries to persuade the Obama Foundation that the University of Chicago, not Columbia University in New York, is the appropriate location for a future Barack Obama Museum and Library.

Such a squall of anxiety hasn’t been seen in this city since its thwarted bid for the 2016 Olympic Games. Hawaii is also in the running for the prize library but it’s Gotham that is giving Chicago conniptions.

The Obamas have hinted they’d like to live there. Moreover, Columbia University has said from the start it has the necessary acreage ready and waiting on a soon-to-be-inaugurated second campus in upper Manhattan.

The University of Chicago, where Mr Obama once taught, didn’t have land to offer. So last week, the city council, urged on by its Mayor Rahm Emanuel, voted to expropriate around 20 acres from one of two magnificent nearby parks – Washington Park or Jackson Park – to solve the land problem.

Seizing public land for the aggrandisement of the nation’s great leader is an act of desperation, if not totalitarianism. Mr Emanuel’s opponent in the mayoral run-off election that’s happening here on 7 April, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, at first sniffed disapprovingly at the notion. But then he changed his mind when he grasped just how apoplectic Chicago natives would be if New York were to get the museum and they didn’t.

“When you talk to Chicagoans, the idea that the library might go somewhere else upsets them on a visceral level,” Ben Hufbauer, an associate professor at the University of Louisville, said. “They’d say: ‘We are the ones who brought you to the dance and now you are abandoning us?’ ”


That is what it would look like. This city, after all, is where Mr Obama got his start in politics; he still has a house here.

The contest is, in fact, pretty much rigged in Chicago’s favour in ways that are quite incestuous. The Obama Foundation, which will make the final decision, is headed by Marty Nesbitt, a prominent businessman in the city and an Obama pal.

Susan Sher, who is leading the University of Chicago’s bid for the library, used to be chief of staff for Michelle Obama at the White House.

And there’s Mr Emanuel. He told the citizens here he would move “heaven and earth” to win them the Obama museum. A few phone calls should surely be enough. He was chief of staff to the President himself once, after all.

Mr Hufbauer, who wrote a book on the topic, Presidential Temples: How Memorials and Libraries Shape Public Memory, agreed the solving of the land issue should seal it for the University of Chicago. But he noted that the Obama Foundation has delayed making its final choice until after the 7 April mayoral runoff.

Do they want to avoid influencing the outcome? Or are they worried about who will win?

“You need a strong advocate for the museum” in place to help bring it into being, Mr Hufbauer explained, noting that Mr Garcia has at best been “lukewarm” about the idea.

“They may be waiting for this election to see if Rahm is re-elected. And if he isn’t, then maybe New York City could have a chance after all.”

Cue more handwringing on the lake.