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Series Goes Behind the Vaults

C-SPAN Unearths Presidential Libraries’ Treasures

A 21-year-old Karl Rove telling an interviewer that when it comes to politics, “I don’t think I have too many abilities” and “I don’t intend to become a professional in the sense that this would be my life and my income and my career” is the type of obscure information that viewers will be treated to in C-SPAN’s new series “Presidential Libraries: History Uncovered,” which debuts Sept. 7.

And although the clip of Rove speaking in 1971 as executive director of the College Republicans doesn’t really have anything to do with the presidents featured in the series — Rove’s boss, President Bush, obviously doesn’t have a presidential library yet — its discovery during research for the series reflects the reality that the libraries have more material than they know what to do with.

“Presidential Libraries” seeks to open some of that history to viewers.

“The presidential libraries have thousands and thousands of hours of material that they don’t have time to go through,” Executive Producer Mark Farkas said at an event announcing the series on Thursday. “The series will show what has not been seen in years, or in some cases what has never been aired.”

The series begins at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum in West Branch, Iowa, (where the Rove footage was discovered) and will continue at 8 p.m. each Friday, moving chronologically through the presidents until the series closes Nov. 30 with the William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum in Little Rock, Ark.

In 1999, Farkas produced a C-SPAN “American Presidents” series. While that covered a president’s entire life, “Presidential Libraries” will be “much more about their presidential and political careers,” he said.

It also will feature lighter moments, such as backyard home movies that Lady Bird Johnson made in 1955 featuring her husband, future President Lyndon Johnson (she praises LBJ’s “slim and bronze” body during some footage at a pool).

Or TV outtakes in which President Harry Truman explains his nickname, “Give ’em hell, Harry.” Or President Gerald Ford giving an ABC correspondent a personal tour of Camp David.

Each program will be hosted live from that president’s library. A host will take viewers on a behind-the-scenes tour of the library, showing historical documents — some part of current exhibits, some not.

There also will be a viewer call-in segment featuring library curators as well as historian Richard Norton Smith, a consultant to the series.

“A viewer could call up and say to a panelist, ‘Hey, Sally, I heard there was a cool letter this president wrote. Have you heard about that?’” Farkas said. “Then we could say, ‘Well, we’re going to take the next call, but while we do we’ll go look into that.’

“That’s not a done deal, but that’s the kind of thing we’re thinking about doing.”

Smith, who has run four presidential libraries, will appear in all 12 programs.

“We always tell presidents that when they leave office two federal agencies will be following them: the Secret Service and the National Archives,” said Sharon Fawcett, the assistant archivist for presidential libraries. “We should add C-SPAN and Richard Norton Smith to that list.”

The National Archives is assisting with the series. Its chief archivist, Allen Weinstein, said he was pleased C-SPAN has stepped in to explore footage the archives had been unable to because of its limited budget.

“I’ve only been the archivist for two and a half years, and I’m not going to explain what my predecessors did or did not do, but there has been a problem with funds,” Weinstein said. “A lot of the presidential material has been catalogued, but we haven’t been able to do what I’d like to because of resources.”

“It’s a wonderful series,” he added. “I view it as an extraordinary opportunity to open up the treasures of our presidents. I’m grateful to C-SPAN for getting involved.”

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