Forty stories up in his Chicago office, Marty Nesbitt can almost hear opinions from down below. Tasked with finding potential homes for the Barack Obama Presidential Library, Nesbitt knows exactly how all his friends and neighbors — many of whom have a connection to the first family — feel.
“People will say, ‘Oh it has to be here, right?’ ” says Kevin Poorman, one of Nesbitt’s partners on the mission, an egg-headed man seasoned with a salt-and-pepper goatee. “Not necessarily. Look, we’re running a process and it will be competitive.” He pauses, gazes out the window of Nesbitt’s office overlooking various spots that have been pitched.
“If it doesn’t come here though, we may have to move,” he says.
“Nah, all these people are our friends. They’d get over it,” Nesbitt says, leaning back in his chair with the quiet confidence of a man entrusted to help shape the legacy of a sitting president.
The part about everyone being friends, at least, is true. “It’s a large city, but a small community in some respects,” says Shirley Newsome, the president of the South East Chicago Commission, an organization once home to first lady Michelle Obama and presidential confidante Valerie Jarrett. Don’t believe her? “As it relates to Marty Nesbitt, his wife was my gynecologist,” she says.
So, yes, this is personal. This is a place where Obama worked as a community organizer, met his wife, raised his kids, taught law school and ran for office. And yet, he has a unique biography, one with birth ties to Hawaii and school ties to Columbia in New York, both of which are seen as legitimate contenders to land the library. It’s unusual for there to be such competition between the states. George W. Bush’s decision came down to eight locations, all of them in Texas. Bill Clinton decided right away to put his in Little Rock. It’s true that Yale expressed interest in the George H.W. Bush library, but it never really had a chance against the Lone Star State. Calvin Coolidge’s library is in Northampton, Mass., where he practiced law, rather than in Vermont, where he was born. (But Northampton might as well be a colony of Vermont.)
Obama first broached the subject of the library with Nesbitt — a longtime friend and treasurer of his 2008 presidential campaign — while watching the NBA playoffs last year. The president then called Poorman, a real-estate developer who had worked with Nesbitt in the past, and brought him onboard. In a sense, they were already behind Chicago in the planning stages. The University of Chicago had been thinking about it since 2009, when they started a faculty committee to discuss possible involvement.
But ask John W. Rogers Jr., who sits on the University of Chicago Board of Trustees, if there was ever a chance that the school wouldn’t put in a bid and he’ll laugh. Rogers co-chaired Obama’s 2009 inauguration committee and donated his Chicago office to the president’s transition team. Today, that office, just one building away from Nesbitt’s, is decorated with photos of Rogers and Obama in the Oval Office; Rogers and Michelle at the Democratic Convention; and Rogers, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Michelle Obama’s brother, Craig Robinson, after playing hoops.
“I couldn’t think of a better place for this library,” says Rogers, a top Obama fundraiser who was once married to Desirée Rogers, Obama’s former social secretary. “It’s fun to be shoulder to shoulder with old friends from the campaigns. It’s the same kind of excitement we had seven years ago, only now we’re working for a sitting United States president.”
The university jumped in with both feet, tapping Michelle Obama’s former chief of staff, Susan Sher, to lead its proposal process. Up to now, Sher’s job has been nebulous. The Barack H. Obama Foundation, which is made up of Nesbitt, Poorman and fundraiser Julianna Smoot, came into existence at the end of January, and the competition won’t begin in earnest until the group comes out with its first set of guidelines, which could happen as early as this week. It’s just the start of a lengthy process.
The George W. Bush Presidential Center, for example, started searching for locations in 2005 and raised more than $500 million (about $250 million for the building) before the library opened last year. Nesbitt says that any predictions for how much the Obama library will cost would be “pure air-grabulation” at this point.
What Sher and others know is that the Obamas — who make the final decision — want a library that, according to a foundation news release, will focus on “expanding economic opportunity, inspiring an ethic of American citizenship, and promoting peace, justice and dignity throughout the world.”
“Okay, that’s hard to figure out exactly what that means,” Sher said in an interview on the university campus. “Our pitch will definitely include economic development, but a lot of it will depend on what questions the foundation asks.”
This is about more than figuring out where to put Obama’s presidential papers. That might have been the case when Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed the idea in 1938, but since then the presidential library system has developed into a legacy-shaping enterprise, with museums to tell the stories from a president’s past and programs to affect the future (take the Kennedy Library Corp., which in 1966 donated $8 million to Harvard to help create the Institute of Politics). This year, the L.B.J. Presidential Library in Austin will host a summit celebrating the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and honoring Lyndon B. Johnson’s role in the passage of that landmark law.
That Obama worked as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago and that the first lady grew up there is not lost on anyone. And for a president who hopes part of his legacy will be about shrinking the inequality gap in addition to breaking racial barriers, inner-city Chicago could be a good fit.
“This is the nitty-gritty of urban life,” says Carol Adams, the president of Chicago’s DuSable Museum, the longest-running museum of African American history in the country. “It was once a vibrant place. Now you see a lot of vacant land. The library could be a real economic engine.”
The University of Chicago may be the best-connected institution vying for the spot, but it’s not the only one. There’s the University of Illinois at Chicago and Chicago State University. Columbia University, where Obama spent part of his undergraduate years, is interested, and the University of Hawaii started its campaign before Obama took office.
“We’re not trying to go blow for blow in terms of raw fundraising prowess or proximity to the president,” says Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii, noting that even if the state can’t get the whole thing, maybe there could be some digital component of the library based there.
The kindly Hawaiian pitch, with its pastoral and tropical location, is in every way the opposite of Chicago. This city is freezing cold and not looking to share. And Rahm Emanuel, the former chief of staff to Obama and current mayor of Chicago, gets to play the role he was born for: strongman.
“He’s our not-so-secret weapon,” Sher says. “He’ll figure out whatever it will take to make sure the city gets it.”
“If it’s not in Chicago, maybe he’ll send me a dead fish,” Nesbitt jokes, referencing an infamous incident where Emanuel sent decomposing seafood to someone who didn’t get him what he wanted. But Nesbitt isn’t really concerned, noting that deciding a location is a ways off. After the guiding questions come out, there will be two rounds of weeding out and scoring proposals. Then, after all the consulting and all the grading is done, the Obamas will choose what they like best. The aim is to have a site selected by the beginning of next year.
But Chicago hasn’t been this united about a potential project since their its bid to get the 2016 Olympics. In 2009, Obama put his political capital on the line to personally “urge” members of the International Olympic Committee to consider the city he said he still called home. The committee chose Rio de Janeiro, and Chicago still smarts from the loss. Landing the library would more than dull the pain.
So, it’s a bit hard to believe Nesbitt when he says his friends and colleagues “are not bothering” them yet on the process.
“They really aren’t,” he says. “They know it’s a process, and they know we are too busy.” Nesbitt then needed to wrap up the interview; he had another guest: David Axelrod, former political adviser to Obama and head of a newly minted political institute at the University of Chicago.
“I’m not an official ambassador for the school,” Axelrod says walking past security in the lobby. “But I think what made the university an appealing place for the institute would make it appealing for the library.”