Washington’s presidential library opens

By Chuck Springston
Washington’s presidential library opens
Thomas Jefferson has one. Abraham Lincoln has one. So do Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and 15 other presidents.

     But the father of our country, the indispensable man as one historian called him, the commander in chief who won the Revolutionary War, the first president of the United States, George Washington, did not have one: a presidential library. Until now.
    The Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon, a 45,000-square-foot building on 15 acres, held its grand opening Sept. 27. I attended.
     Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough, the keynote speaker, said of Washington: “This was a human being deserving infinite study. ... We can never ever know enough about George Washington.” 
     Scholars will come to the new library because Washington remains relevant. He set a high bar for public service and still exemplifies the ideal leader.  In some nations, political heroes are described as their George Washington.
      A $106.4 million capital campaign, which began in early 2010 and concluded June 30, raised money for construction of the library and created an endowment that, among other things, supports fellowships for scholars (who will stay in a 7,300-square-foot residence on the library grounds) and funds the preservation of rare books and manuscripts related to Washington.
      The campaign received donations from more than 7,000 individuals, corporations and foundations. I was one of the small donors, which got me an invite to the grand opening.
     The largest contribution was $38 million from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, based in Las Vegas. Reynolds, who started the foundation in 1954 and died in 1993, owned more than 100 media properties as part of his Donrey Media Group,  including the Las Vegas Review-Journal and other newspapers, as well as radio stations, TV stations, cable TV companies and billboards. 
      The chairman of the foundation since 1990 is Fred W. Smith, a former CEO of Reynolds’ media empire (and not the Fred W. Smith who is CEO of FedEx Corp.). Smith toured Mount Vernon in May 2001 during a visit to Washington, D.C. He was so impressed with the place and the president that he began building a relationship between Mount Vernon and the foundation.
     The Reynolds Foundation has become Mount Vernon’s biggest benefactor, contributing more than $69 million, including money for the Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center, which opened in 2006, and the presidential library.
      The library contains many of Washington’s books, letters and documents, along with thousands of other books, manuscripts, newspapers and maps connected with family members and the founding era.
      After Washington’s death in December 1799, eulogists described the first president with “rapturous” praise, recounts McCullough in his biography of John Adams. But when Abigail Adams heard those grandiose speeches, she responded with the most poignant tribute: “Simple truth is his best, greatest legacy.”
      The National Library for the Study of George Washington will be a place where books, manuscript collections and other documents can be opened to reveal the simple truths of Washington’s legacy.
During the library’s grand opening, McCullough put it this way, “We can never know enough about George Washington.”

Contact: cspringston@yttwebzine.com