Pritzker appoints LaHood to head Lincoln Library
Former Republican congressman chosen to smooth over turmoil
By Ted Cox
The governor has selected a former Republican congressman and U.S. transportation secretary to smooth the road for the embattled Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Thursday named Ray LaHood chairman of the library and museum’s board of directors. The seven-term U.S. representative from Peoria developed a reputation over a 36-year career in public service for bipartisan policies. Although he supported U.S. Sen. John McCain for president in 2008, the year he declined to seek reelection, he criticized McCain’s running mate, Sarah Palin, for her incendiary appearances on the campaign trail. He went on to be appointed U.S. secretary of transportation by President Obama and served in that office throughout Obama’s first term.
LaHood, whose son Darin is a more partisan congressman from Dunlap outside Peoria, recently reaffirmed his bipartisan approach when he appeared before a state Senate subcommittee in April to urge passage of a major capital spending bill for infrastructure. “Illinois is one big pothole,” he said at the time. The General Assembly went on to pass a record $45 billion capital plan.
LaHood, however, will be tasked with doing more than filling potholes at the Lincoln Library and Museum. He steps in to head the board less than a week after Pritzker removed Alan Lowe as the facility’s executive director.
The museum reportedly has almost $10 million outstanding on a $25 million loan it took out in 2007 to buy a collection including the blood-stained gloves Lincoln wore the night of his assassination and a stovepipe hat of his that alone is valued at $6.5 million.
That’s if it really belonged to Lincoln, however, as its authenticity has been questioned with no firm resolution. In fact, just this week Dave McKinney of WBEZ-FM in Chicago reported that the state historian had found “no evidence” the hat ever belonged to Lincoln — a detail “previously undisclosed” by Lowe.
Lowe, a 2016 appointee of Gov. Bruce Rauner, dropped a $25,000-a-year consulting position with the Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation, the facility’s fundraising arm, last October over perceived conflicts of interest stemming from that authenticity battle. Lowe previously served as the inaugural director of the George W. Bush Presidential Museum and Library in Dallas, and the State Journal-Register suggested that the consulting position was intended to augment his pay after he took a salary cut in the move. Lowe also previously worked at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in New York and the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California.
Pritzker reshaped the library and museum board Thursday, also naming Joan Brodsky, a current member of the library foundation and also of the Newberry Library in Chicago, as historic-preservation expert on the board, along with Gary Johnson, president of the Chicago History Museum, and Eunice Santos, a dean at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Kathryn Harris, the former library services director of the Lincoln Presidential Library and the Illinois State Historical Library, which moved into the Lincoln facility when it opened in 2005, will serve as library and museum expert on the board.
The board will select the next executive director, according to the Governor’s Press Office.
The museum and library has faced controversy since before it even opened, however. The library is a solid, stately research facility, but the museum takes a more visitor-friendly approach, to the point where Southern Illinois University Carbondale historian John Symon has called it “Six Flags Over Lincoln” and Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin has labeled it “Lincoln Land.” Nevertheless, it’s considered the most popular presidential museum in the nation.
The Chicago Sun-Times reminded readers last week that former Gov. George Ryan tried to appoint his chief of staff as director of the $115 million museum in 2001. Sun-Times columnist Steve Neal charged at the time that Ryan was trying to turn the museum into a “patronage dump.” Ryan, of course, later went to prison on a corruption conviction including a system of selling truck-driving licenses for campaign donations while secretary of state. Neal, who died in 2004, had the reading room named after him at the library.