Why White House Records Are Important
Jacob Heilbrunn’s essay, “Not My Fault,” in the New York Times Book Review, January 22, 2008, provides just one glimpse into why archivists and their allies should never give up the battle for the reasonable management, preservation, and access to presidential records. Heilbrunn starts off his assessment, noting, “Although secrecy and loyalty have been bywords of the Bush White House, its officials have been improbably loose-lipped upon leaving office, particularly in the memoirs they have written.” He then focuses in on the new memoir by Scott McClellan, W’s former press secretary, by placing such memoirs into their historical context: “What may, in fact, be most revealing about McClellan’s book is not what it discloses about the head of state, but what it says about the continuing devaluation of the political memoir as a literary form. Paradoxical though it may seem, even as these books have become more accusatory, they have also become less illuminating. While they were once useful and sometimes absorbing accounts of the inner workings of government at its highest levels, these books now tend to be exercises in apostasy, and their primary purpose seems to be to confer intellectual and moral independence, if not heroism, on their authors.”
While acknowledging that these memoirs are a form of “record,” Heilbrunn also suggests their limitations as historical evidence: “Enter Scott McClellan, who was a small player, after all. He issued no orders, formulated no policy. He wasn’t even in the room when the big shots assembled. . . .” Then he suggests just precisely why these kinds of memoirs are so limited in value: “In other words, McClellan wasn’t supposed to function as a press secretary, but to impersonate one. Still smarting, he has avenged himself by exercising the power of the powerless. He has gained the spotlight, if only for a few days, and at the same time has distanced himself from his former brethren.”
Archivists have long commented on the need to be more vigorous in putting pressure on the White House (and for that matter the National Archives) to keep the right records and to make them accessible in a timely fashion. Bruce P. Montgomery, “Presidential Materials: Politics and the Presidential Records Act,” American Archivist 66 (Spring/Summer 2003): 102-138 chronicles how, despite the Presidential Records Act of 1978, presidents have continued to try to do anything to keep control of their papers (Montgomery has a new book out on this subject which I have not yet had the chance to read). Timothy L. Ericson, “Building Our Own ‘Iron Curtain’: The Emergence of Secrecy in American Government,” American Archivist 68 (Spring/Summer 2005): 18-52, one of the great SAA presidential addresses, documents the growing secrecy of American government and asks where the archivists are and have been in resisting this. Thirty years before, J. Frank Cook wrote, “Because archivists and historians are an important conduit between public officials and the public, it behooves us not to place ourselves solely at the service of officials who are reluctant to inform the public fully” (“’Private Papers’ of Public Officials,” American Archivist 38 [July 1975]: 319). Others – such as Laura Millar, “An Obligation of Trust: Speculations on Accountability and Description,” American Archivist 69 (Spring/Summer 2006): 60-78 – question such roles (reminding us that not every archivist applauded Ericson’s address at the 2004 SAA meeting) as giving the “profession a level of responsibility that only the most egotistical narcissist would consider reasonable” (pp. 75-76).
However, what the McClellan book reminds us of is that without an archival profession energetically seeking to preserve a full documentary record and resisting excessive secrecy, all we will no about how our government works will be the salacious insider accounts offering conflicting evidence and inflated sense of their own roles. Alasdair Roberts, in his balanced The Collapse of Fortress Bush: The Crisis of Authority in American Government (New York: New York University Press, 2008), provides a bit of context about such memoirs: “The breakdown in internal discipline [within the Bush administration] was remarkable and led to a spate of tell-all books, often published within months of the events they described, that provided an unprecedented view of the internal workings of the Bush White House. Precisely because the disclosures were driven by discontent, the view was rarely flattering” (p. 158).
Archivists need to do better, of course. We need more vigilant – ok, maybe egotistical – archivists. Consider Michael Dobbs’s op-ed essay, “Our History, Off-Limits,” in the June 10, 2008 Washington Post, p. A23. Dobbs argues that “our declassification system has broken down. Historians,” he argues, “are waiting an average of seven years for replies from presidential libraries to their Freedom of Information Act requests.” To compound the problem, he notes, the current White House “cannot locate millions of e-mail records created during the months immediately before and after the 2003 invasion of Iraq.” Dobbs correctly demonstrates that this is not merely the problem of the present administration, but that it is the reflection of poor policies and practices going back many decades. Dobbs relates his own personal experience in how records he used just two years ago (concerning the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, were recently closed pending a “security review.” Then he notes, “Some of these records date to World War II and have been pored over, copied and written about extensively. Many of the withdrawn documents can be viewed online. In addition to defying common sense, the reclassification initiative consumes valuable taxpayer resources that would otherwise be devoted to declassifying records. I am confident that nothing I saw while examining the Navy's missile crisis records could be of use to terrorists, but much would be of great interest to historians.”
How many times do archivists need to hear or read such accounts and sit idly by? Maybe here is one reason. Dobbs concludes, “In the meantime, morale is plummeting at the National Archives. Many knowledgeable archivists have quit or retired over the past couple of years. Those who remain speak fondly about Richard Nixon, a champion of glasnost compared with the Bush administration. Under Nixon, researchers gained access to most World War II records, in accordance with the 30-year waiting period for the release of all but the most sensitive secret documents. If the Nixon standards applied today, practically all the records relating to the Cuban missile crisis would be released. Instead, roughly half of these records are still inaccessible to researchers. Our history is locked away -- without any appreciable gains for the war on terrorism.” This is something to reflect upon.