Carol Felsenthal
On politics

U. of C. Prof. Charles Lipson on the Obama Library

As soon as I saw the Sun-Times’s headline last week, “U. of C. prof wants to shelve Obama library idea,” I knew the story was about Charles Lipson. In the article, by Abdon Pallasch, the political science professor objects to housing the Obama complex because…

Charles Lipson
University of Chicago professor Charles Lipson
As soon as I saw the Sun-Times’s headline last week, “U. of C. prof wants to shelve Obama library idea,” I knew the story was about Charles Lipson. In the article, by Abdon Pallasch, the political science professor objects to housing the Obama complex because it will contain not only a library, which is appropriate on a university campus, but also a “celebratory museum,” which Lipson deems inappropriate. I’ve known Lipson for several years from appearing together on Bruce Dumont’s Beyond the Beltway, and I wasn’t surprised that the prof—a fiscally conservative, socially liberal southerner who has finally come around to calling himself a Republican—was opposed to a project that most universities would kill to have (think millions of visitors and dollars, hugely heightened visibility).

The 64-year-old Lipson has taught at the University of Chicago since 1977, and while he has never been simpatico politically with his colleagues, this recent, public warning that the Hyde Park institution should not house the Barack Obama presidential library will not endear him to his colleagues in his department, much less the University. I talked by telephone to the prof earlier this week. Here is an edited transcript:

CF: I’ve watched you make your argument against the Obama library on WTTW’s Chicago Tonight and on CNN. Did the University’s PR people jump on you and ask you to stop doing these shows? Have you heard from University President Robert Zimmer?
I really respect the way the University of Chicago treats divergent opinions, even if those opinions might not be the same as those of senior administrators. The president, the provost, the deans, the chair of my department, the people from the PR department—not a one of them has called me and tried to in any way change my views or change my speaking out about them.

CF: Really? No one has called you just to say…
That’s not quite true. There is a committee on campus that had not been publicly announced. This is the Stone Committee. Before this became a public issue, I had written several memoranda to the faculty committee that deals with these issues at the highest level. It’s called the Committee of the Council. It’s a six- or seven-member committee that meets regularly with the president and the provost. I have served on it myself in the past. I’m not on it now. I expressed my concerns to them, beginning maybe a year ago. They then told me that a committee would be appointed at some point, and later, when I pressed on, they said that Geof Stone—former provost, former dean of the law school—would chair the committee. That was the last I heard of it. However, after my views became public following the Sun-Times article, Geof Stone asked if we could have a cup of coffee. He then talked with me and in an appropriate way. And he shared some materials with me but would not let me keep it or circulate it.

CF: Can you describe the materials?
The materials were essentially—and I can understand why he didn’t want to have it circulated—a draft report about the program. People don’t circulate draft reports.

CF: A draft report about bringing the Obama library to the U. of C.?

CF: Did Professor Stone write it?

CF: Is Geof Stone a proponent of the library at the University?
If you were to ask him, an expert on constitutional law and a careful man, whether he was a proponent, he would not give you a straight answer on that. What I liked about the report was that it, at least in writing, showed that it was sensitive to the issues of the University’s scholarly independence. It raised most of the issues that a faculty member like me would be concerned with. What I didn’t like about it was, at the very beginning of the report, it said our basic goal is to figure out a way to make this happen, consistent with the values of the University of Chicago—that is, the way to bring the museum and library and think tank to the university. But it’s important to recognize that there are really three different things, plus the foundation. There’s a government repository of records; nobody has any debate about that. Then there’s a celebratory museum, and in my mind, nobody in their right mind should have any debate about that. It’s inappropriate for our school. Then there’s a kind of think tank and a foundation that pays for both the museum and the think tank. And those raise serious questions both on how and why they get their money; their total bias toward supporting whoever the president being honored is; their absolutely understandable [desire] to stack it with all the people who served in that administration or supported it in important ways and to downplay anything that’s negative—essentially to act as a kind of ongoing political and ideological arm of whatever president that library, museum and think tank are honoring. So the draft report that Geof wrote said our goal is to figure out a way to get this here consistent with our values. I don’t think that’s in any way the right way to frame this.

CF: Have you been asked to serve on this committee?
No, absolutely not.

CF: Who are the other people on it?
I don’t know that I’m allowed to disclose their names, but I’ll tell you one name that I was absolutely shocked to see on it: Susan Sher [a close friend and former chief of staff of Michelle Obama, also a special assistant to President Obama and associate White House counsel, now a senior adviser to U. of C. President Zimmer and an executive VP at the University’s Medical Center. Before becoming First Lady, Michelle Obama was a VP at the Medical Center, where she worked closely with Sher.] It was shocking to me. And as soon as I raised it, they said, “Don’t worry about that.” I told Geof, “Look, this whole thing is just a cover story; this has been decided at the highest levels that this is going to happen, and they just want to make sure that there’s a faculty report that says it’s okay and they’ve appointed a committee that will produce such a report, chaired by somebody who’s a strong Obama backer, who will frame the issue as, “How can we do this consistent with our values?”—rather than, “Given our values, is this a good idea?” which is the right way to frame it. 

CF: So are you opposed to the University housing any part of the Obama complex?
I do not, in any way, oppose an Obama museum and think tank in the city of Chicago—indeed on the South Side. I think it would be not just appropriate, but desirable. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the University honoring a distinguished faculty associate like President Obama, and a former member of the hospital staff like Michelle Obama. If the University wants to name a professorship after him, name a building, name scholarships for poor students, whatever it wants to do, those are appropriate. What I oppose is a University of Chicago affiliation with what will inevitably be a very partisan museum and think tank. [No matter how many safeguards are put in place] my own personal view is that you just can’t do it—that the bias and celebratory character of the institution is just part of the warp and woof of that institution.

CF: So where would you put it?
I think the best place on the South Side would be at Garfield Boulevard and 55th Street, between the Dan Ryan and Washington Park. It would have easy accessibility to cars and buses, to two rapid transit lines, and to scholars who were coming from the University of Chicago or elsewhere. It would also help redevelop a neighborhood.

CF: There are news stories that the University of Hawaii is actively lobbying for the Obama library/museum. Aren’t you afraid you’ll be blamed if it goes there? Although I think there’s zero chance that it will end up in a location that’s gorgeous but so difficult to get to.
You’re completely correct. Geof and those people think if we don’t offer a strong connection, then Obama will be insulted and will take his library elsewhere.

CF: Have you heard from Mayor Rahm Emanuel yet telling you to cease and desist, lest the museum go somewhere other than Chicago?
No, my knees are still unbroken.

CF: On one level, I was heartened to see the Sun-Times endorse your view in an editorial; Rahm has friends in the group that owns the paper.
I got a phone call from the editorial board [Tom McNamee] asking me if I could explain my reasons for opposing a University of Chicago affiliation with a possible Obama library. I was glad to explain it. At the end, [McNamee] said, “That’s convincing; we’ll run an editorial that supports that position.”

CF: When you appeared on CNN, anchor Brooke Baldwin asked if you’re a Republican, and you never answered.
I thought that the point of it was wrong. The point of that was, “Am I opposed to a library because I somehow oppose the policies of the president?” That’s not my logic. I told her that Ronald Reagan lived for one year [as a boy] virtually on our campus, it’s now a building owned by [the U. of C.]. Until Barack Obama became president, Ronald Reagan was the only U.S. president to live in Chicago, so if they had decided his Dixon, Illinois, and Chicago roots warranted—and the University of Chicago’s strong association with free markets warranted them looking for a Reagan library here—I would have opposed that, too.

CF: Will you vote for Obama in 2012?
No, I’m voting for Romney. I now consider myself a Republican. For many, many, many years I was a Democrat. When I voted for McCain, that was the first time I voted for a Republican in years. I did not vote for George W. Bush [in 2000] even though I thought Gore was a weak candidate. I thought you shouldn’t be awarded for big mistakes, and Bush had made very big mistakes, so I voted for Kerry. I’m not campaigning for Romney. Somebody asked me if I want to be a surrogate. I said, “absolutely not.” I’m not looking for a job in Washington. My politics are pretty simple to describe: I’m conservative on fiscal issues, debt, taxes. I’m conservative about the increasing centralization of government in Washington, which I oppose. I’m globalist in my foreign policy preferences—I support U.S. engagement with international institutions and prefer a U.S. role to try to lead. On social issues I’m extremely liberal, or perhaps libertarian. I’m perfectly happy to see people date and marry the people they want. [Lipson confirms that he’s also pro-choice.] I’m very much opposed to a nanny state, so I don’t think it’s a good idea that people drink large sugared drinks, and I think it’s great if Michelle Obama or Mayor Bloomberg or mayor Emanuel tries to persuade us not to do that, but I don’t like it when they begin to regulate what items that really should be matters of personal choice.

CF: Are you a supporter of the United Nations?
Yes and no. I think the UN sometimes does good things, but I think that as a bureaucracy it’s a very mixed bag. I think the General Assembly has become a kind of place where extreme anti-Western ideas are voiced virtually without being rebutted. I certainly support the IMF, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, so it depends upon the particular international organization.

CF: What’s it like being you at the University? Do you feel like a fish out of water?
Oh, yeah, absolutely. I asked [members of my department, the political science department] about the Bush/Gore and then Bush/Kerry elections. It’s possible that Bush got one vote out of the department in his first run, but he got none in his second run. It’s just inconceivable that somebody would be appointed to a position in, say, sociology, who took a prominent view that was different from that. It’s inconceivable in most universities that anybody who took a position that would be a middle-of-the-road support of Israel would get an appointment. 

CF: So do you and wife get invited to faculty parties?
Yeah, but there are some people who think I’m crazy.

CF: Before I let you go, in your opinion, how has Hillary Clinton done as Secretary of State?
The problem with U.S. foreign policy is we don’t have one. Hillary is doing a perfectly adequate job. The president had a foreign policy, and it was to reach out in a friendly way to our adversaries because the Bush administration had pushed them into a more adversarial position by having a hostile foreign policy. So if we did that, then Russia, Venezuela, North Korea, Iran, and Syria would all become more friendly. As Sarah Palin once said, “How’s that working out for you?” That is a policy that has totally failed. The reason it has been obscured is because Obama has been very active in the war on terror, and his success in the war on terror using drones—and the fact that we haven’t had a successful attack so far during his presidency—has given him cover.

CF: If Obama wins, who’s his Secretary of State?
John Kerry.

CF: If Romney wins?
My outside pick would be Joe Lieberman.


Photograph: Courtesy of Charles Lipson


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