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Zaleski: TR library a visionary investment

POST MILLS, Vt. -- Opposition to public money for a Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library at Medora, N.D., is shortsighted.

Columnists featured in these pages -- friends and admired colleagues -- recently donned fashionable, if ridiculous, blinders that restrict their vision to the proposition that millions of dollars for the proposed library should be spent on “more important” things: mental health, public schools, universities, roads and bridges, senior services. Noble causes, all, to be sure.

But the notion the Legislature will divert money not appropriated for a TR library to those causes does not comport with the historical record. No money for “A” does not translate into money for “B.” Never has.

Spending protocols aside, the library is about far more than money. It’s about history and heritage. It’s about a bold pubic and private investment that will generate returns for generations to come. It’s a statement of North Dakota’s determination to tell its remarkable story, not merely to itself (which often comes off as concession to an inferiority complex), but to the nation and world. It’s a new spotlight on a remarkable man who grasped the beauty, energy and potential of North Dakota, and who said again and again he would not have won the presidency but for his time in the Badlands. Theodore Roosevelt, the Badlands and North Dakota are forever joined at the historical hip in one of the most captivating sagas in American presidential lore.

Naysayers and pessimists are common on the North Dakota landscape, but they do not always prevail. Good thing, too. The unique Capitol Building in Bismarck was constructed of world-class materials during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Opponents said the state could not afford such a grand structure. Wiser heads prevailed, the tower rose on a rise above the Missouri River, and today stands as a monument to forward-thinking leadership.

When former Gov. Arthur Link campaigned to build a Heritage Center on the Capitol grounds, he was dismissed as a spendthrift. He and others persevered. The center was constructed and won high praise. Several years before his death, Link and other former governors pledged to raise private funds and convince lawmakers to appropriate public dollars for an expansion of the Heritage Center. Millions were raised, millions were appropriated. Today the expanded center and museum is a world-class showcase of North Dakota pre-history, history and heritage. It is the state’s No. 1 visited attraction. I’ve seen former naysayers and their families there.

The Theodore Roosevelt library at a site near the national park that bears his name was proposed in the spirit that built the Capitol and the Heritage Center. Private fundraising has gone well. Donors recognize Roosevelt’s North Dakota experience played a pivotal role in his life. They understand the attraction of the story to an audience beyond the borders of the state. Gov. Doug Burgum is a visionary proponent of the effort, having included funding in his budget. The Legislature should be with him on this one.

As for my columnist colleagues: Do advocate for worthy “other things.” If worthy enough, they should stand on the merits; not because funding for a presidential library is denied.