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Presidential Centers Warn of Fragile State of US Democracy


FILE - In this May 2023 photo, Luci Baines Johnson looks at the desk that her father, President Lyndon B. Johnson, sat at to sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The desk is on display at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas.

Concern for U.S. democracy amid deep national polarization has prompted the entities supporting 13 presidential libraries dating back to Herbert Hoover to call for a recommitment to the country's bedrock principles, including the rule of law and respecting a diversity of beliefs.

The statement released Thursday, the first time the libraries have joined to make such a public declaration, said Americans have a strong interest in supporting democratic movements and human rights around the world because "free societies elsewhere contribute to our own security and prosperity here at home."

"But that interest," it said, "is undermined when others see our own house in disarray."

The joint message from presidential centers, foundations and institutes emphasized the need for compassion, tolerance and pluralism while urging Americans to respect democratic institutions and uphold secure and accessible elections.

The statement noted that "debate and disagreement" are central to democracy but also alluded to the coarsening of dialogue in the public arena during an era when officials and their families are receiving death threats.

"Civility and respect in political discourse, whether in an election year or otherwise, are essential," it said.

Most of the living former presidents have been sparing in giving their public opinions about the state of the nation as polls show that large swaths of Republicans still believe the lies perpetuated by former President Donald Trump and his allies that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. Trump, a Republican, also has lashed out at the justice system as he faces indictments in four criminal cases, including two related to his efforts to overturn the results of his reelection loss to Joe Biden, a Democrat.

Thursday's statement stopped short of calling out individuals, but it still marked one of the most substantive acknowledgments that people associated with the nation's former presidents are worried about the country's trajectory.

"I think there's great concern about the state of our democracy at this time," said Mark Updegrove, CEO of the LBJ Foundation, which supports the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas. "We don't have to go much farther than January 6 to realize that we are in a perilous state."

Efforts to suppress or weaken voter turnout are of special interest to the LBJ Foundation, Updegrove said, given that President Lyndon Johnson considered his signing of the Voting Rights Act his "proudest legislative accomplishment."

The bipartisan statement was signed by the Hoover Presidential Foundation, the Roosevelt Institute, the Truman Library Institute, the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, the LBJ Foundation, the Richard Nixon Foundation, the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation, the Carter Center, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute, the George & Barbara Bush Foundation, the Clinton Foundation, the George W. Bush Presidential Center and the Obama Presidential Center. Those organizations all support presidential libraries created under the Presidential Library Act of 1955, along with the Eisenhower Foundation.

The Eisenhower Foundation chose not to sign, and it said in a statement emailed to The Associated Press: "The Eisenhower Foundation has respectfully declined to sign this statement. It would be the first common statement that the presidential centers and foundations have ever issued as a group, but we have had no collective discussion about it, only an invitation to sign."

The foundation said each presidential entity had its own programs related to democracy.

The push for the joint statement was spearheaded by Daniel Kramer, executive director of the George W. Bush Institute. Kramer said the former president "did see and signed off on this statement."

He said the effort was intended to send "a positive message reminding us of who we are and also reminding us that when we are in disarray, when we're at loggerheads, people overseas are also looking at us and wondering what's going on." He also said it was necessary to remind Americans that their democracy cannot be taken for granted.

He said the Bush Institute has hosted several events on elections, including one as part of a joint initiative with the other groups called More Perfect that featured Bill Gates, a member of the board of supervisors in Arizona's Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix. The county, its supervisors and its elections staff have been targeted repeatedly by election conspiracy theorists in recent years.

Gates and his family have been threatened by people who believe false allegations of election fraud.

"We wanted to remind people that those who oversee our elections are our fellow citizens," Kramer said. "Some of them told stories that are almost heartbreaking about the threats they faced."

He said he hoped the joint statement would generate wide support, but he added: "It's hard to say whether it will or not in these polarized times."

Melissa Giller, chief marketing officer at the Ronald Reagan Foundation and Institute, said the decision to sign on was a quick one. The foundation was approached shortly after it launched a new effort, its Center on Public Civility in Washington, D.C. She said the statement represents "everything our center will stand for."

"We need to help put an end to the serious discord and division in our society," Giller said in an emailed response. "America is experiencing a decline in trust, social cohesion, and personal interaction."

Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to former President Barack Obama who is now CEO of the Obama Foundation, said the former president supported the statement.

"This is a moment where we could all come together and show that democracy is not about partisan politics," she said. "It's about making our country strong, making our country more decent, more kind, more humane."

Jarrett said one of the foundation's priorities is trying to restore faith in the institutions that are the pillars of society. To do that has meant taking on disinformation and creating opportunity where "people believe that our democracy is on the up-and-up."

She said Obama has led a democracy forum and is planning another later this year in Chicago.

"I think part of it is recognizing that we are very fragile right now," Jarrett said, citing the fact that "we didn't have a smooth orderly transition of power in the last election" along with people's mistrust of the court system and elected officials.

"The wheels on our democracy bus," she said, "feel a little wobbly right now."

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