Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Friday, March 02, 2007

FDR's Archival Legacy

Wrangling over the location of the George W. Bush Presidential Library has once again generated public interest in what these institutions are supposed to do. This is nothing new, of course, as every time a president prepares to leave office the matter of their library and those of other former chief executives becomes newsworthy and usually controversial. I commend to everyone interested in learning more about these institutions to read the Summer 2006 issue of the Public Historian entitled “Presidential Libraries: Programs, Policies, and the Public Interest.”

Larry J. Hackman, the former director of the Truman Library, and a tireless advocate over more than thirty years for a strong public policy role for archives and historical records programs (through a career spanning from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission to the Truman Library) states the purpose of this issue in his introduction: “I have had three main objectives for this special issue: First, to secure articles that broaden and deepen our understanding of presidential libraries. Second, to provoke discussion, especially on issues that have not received sufficient attention or have been largely avoided. And third, to provide examples for and I hope stimulate additional research and writing on the development and operation of the presidential libraries” (p. 7). From my vantage point, he has succeeded with the first and third purposes, but I am not as hopeful that these essays will generate the kind of public discussion Hackman desires. He is an optimistic believer in the power of the written word to stimulate the kind of discourse he seeks, while I think that this will only happen if we have more individuals like Hackman in leadership positions provoking others to take notice. Unfortunately, Hackman is now retired, and I see few other archival leaders with his passion and vision playing on the national level with the same kinds of interests in public policy.

There are a number of interesting essays in this volume. Lynn Scott Cochrane, presently a library director and the author of a dissertation on presidential libraries, contributes a lengthy analysis of the costs and benefits of the libraries as a policy subsystem; Sharon K. Fawcett, the current Assistant Archivist for Presidential Libraries at the National Archives, provides a historical overview of the libraries, acknowledging, without really responding to them, that there have been legitimate criticisms made about these libraries; Benjamin Hufbauer examines exhibitions in the presidential museums, drawing upon his book on the same topic; Lee Ann Potter at the National Archives describes the educational programs of these libraries; Nancy Kegan Smith and Gary M. Stern, both of the National Archives, provide a historical review of the access to presidential records made possible by the libraries, with discussion of the most famous cases challenging how these records were made available; Raymond H. Geselbracht, presently at the Truman Library, contributes a history of that library’s first half century with a candid assessment of its successes and failures; R. Bruce Craig provides a list of potential reforms that ought to be carried out in the libraries; and Hackman contributes both an introduction to the volume and a description of “better policies and practices” for these libraries. There is also a set of reviews of the exhibitions then up at the libraries by historians and other experts from outside the libraries themselves.

Scattered throughout these essays are some compelling arguments about the presidential libraries. Geselbracht, in perhaps the most candid account of a library by an insider, contributes, for example, this thought: “The history of the Truman Library can be read in different ways to suggest different outcomes for the future of presidential libraries. The simplest assumption one can derive from the library’s history is that presidential libraries will continue to be established for all presidents when they leave office.” However, he is not uncritical of what these libraries represent: “But other readings of the Truman Library’s history are not so sanguine, for if problems similar to those experienced at the Truman Library trouble other libraries and if the American people and the Congress become concerned about them, the building of new libraries could end.” (p. 73). Geselbracht identifies four problems with them – “their vagueness of purpose”; “increasing size and expense”; “reliance on private foundations”; and “denial of access to the president’s materials” (pp. 73-76). Despite these problems, he concludes that the “most obvious reading of the Truman Library’s history suggests a bright future for presidential libraries. Millions of people have benefited from the Truman Library’s programs in some way, and some of these people have experienced something so important at the library that their lives have been changed for the better. The library in recent years has shown an ability to recognize and minimize its inherent flaws, and to design programs which meet the needs of important segments of the population. The museum exhibits that have been created during the last ten years are founded on a sophisticated understanding of the elements of an educating experience for people of different ages and backgrounds, and the memorializing function that perhaps inevitably creeps into museum exhibits has been minimized. The library’s programs for K through 12 students, almost all of them designed in the last ten years, are responsive to state and national history standards and are serving many thousands of students and their teachers every year. The library’s private partner, the Harry S. Truman Library Institute, has shared in the process of institutional regeneration that has occurred in recent years, becoming much more involved in library programs than in past years, and much more effective in providing resources in areas not adequately funded by the government” (pp. 76-77).

This special issue of the Public Historian does not constitute the typical laudatory or uncritical assessment of presidential libraries that we have seen published in different venues through the years. Hackman himself, in seeking to put together the issue, is concerned about the presidential libraries and their accountability to the American citizens: “Despite the expanding number of libraries and their growing audiences, no systematic surveys and analyses have been undertaken of the programs of presidential libraries that aim to serve the public. Except for recent surveys of educational programs, there is no solid description of the scope and nature of public programs offered by presidential libraries and their collaborators and no ready basis for understanding how they are developed and who influences what is done and how. Neither has an assessment been undertaken by independent experts as to program quality in any area and no solid data gathered on what the public seeks from these programs or how it views program quality or content. The public, their elected representatives, and other interested parties have lacked a sound basis upon which to understand the operations as well as the value and performance of these important programs. A sustained program of independent expert analysis on particular program areas is much to be desired” (p. 169). Evidence does not support, however, that this kind of sustained or independent analysis will happen.

Even when some of the authors write defensively of the activities of these libraries, others counter them within the journal issue. For example, Smith and Stern conclude the following about how the libraries enable access to presidential records: “With all the complexities and challenges in processing presidential records, the United States still makes its presidential records available much more quickly than other democratic nations. Many nations have absolute thirty-year rules, before which no public access is provided. No other nation actively makes its highest-level policy documents available for review in such a short time frame” (p. 115). Even though it seems a bit of a stretch to suggest that these libraries ought to be graded on some kind of curve among democratic nations, it is more important that others, a few pages away, contradict such conclusions. Bruce Craig, in his essay, is far more critical about these institutions represent: “To me, trying to represent the libraries as a more cohesive unified system is not nearly as important a priority as is the need to provide a strategic refocusing on Franklin Roosevelt’s original intent for creating the first government run presidential library in 1939—establishing a repository to preserve the evidence of his presidency for the benefit of future generations. The primary legislative mission and purpose of a presidential library is archival. The Office of Presidential Libraries’ primary goal should be simple and straightforward: to insure that the presidential documentary record is preserved and then made available to the public as quickly as possible. That is not happening now” (p. 83).

Whatever one’s opinion about presidential libraries, this set of essays will be useful for helping one re-evaluate just what these institutions ought to be or if they should be continued.


At 8:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ms. Smith and Mr. Stern touch in their article in Public Historian on work done on the Nixon tapes while I was employed at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) from 1976-1990. One of their statements is similar what was said in court when Stanley Kutler, a history professor, filed a lawsuit for access to the Nixon tapes in 1992. Nothing more clearly illustrates the challenges NARA faces than reading that statement in an article published in 2006.

I briefly worked with Ms. Smith but never with Mr. Stern. Ms. Smith came to Washington in 1989 to work for John Fawcett, NARA's Assistant Archivist for Presidential Libraries. She and I overlapped in our careers by only one year, as I left NARA’s employ in 1990. Gary Stern was not NARA's General Counsel in 1992 when NARA responded to the lawsuit filed by Stanley Kutler for access to the tapes. According to his biography on NARA’s external web site, he did not join NARA until 1998.

In pondering the hand Mr. Stern was dealt, it occurred to me that the following would make an interesting exercise for a class on archives and the law. This comment is very long but worth posting for the vivid way in which it illustrates the pitfalls of working in Washington.

If I were a professor, I would present my students with the facts I am about to lay out at length. Then I would ask them to craft a story to tell in court. I would caution them that the litigation involves access to historical records dealing with Watergate, a matter in which historians and journalists have a high degree of interest. NARA is the defendant. Their job as lawyers is to protect NARA by presenting a sustainable narrative, one which would not lead historians or journalists to conclude that the agency had no independence in matters involving Presidential records.

Split the class, asking half to do this one way, half the other. In both instances, the class should keep in mind that the National Archives is a subordinate agency within the executive branch and that it does not speak for itself in court. Rather, officials from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) speak for it in any litigation in which the NARA is a defendant. I would ask the class to do this one of two ways:

(2) Base one narrative on the assumption that although DOJ was filing interrogatory responses and pleadings on its behalf, the National Archives and its officials, including the General Counsel, had a relatively free hand. DOJ showed tactical and strategic skill in assessing the complaint filed in court. It took into account the fact that agency employees and the plaintiff were historians schooled in ferreting out the facts and doing critical analysis. Justice’s lawyers and NARA’s officials agreed that to avoid being blindsided, they should interview everyone within the Archives with pertinent information prior to presenting a story to the court. There was no external interference from DOJ, which is headed by the Attorney General, who represents federal employees but also the White House. DOJ's lawyesrs consult with the Attorney General, who agrees that in a case of this sensitiviy, all involved need to avoid appearing to show conflicts of interest;

(2) Base a second one on the assumption that the National Archives and its officials did not have a free hand but were taking direction from outside the agency. The lawyers present a narrative in court but never talk to the man who supervised the processing of the Nixon tapes between 1981 and 1987 before they file interrogatory responses. NARA's and DOJ's lawyers are unable to protect themselves from being blindsided later in court by facts unknown to them at the time the legal complaint is filed.

Here are the facts to consider.

The National Archives took physical custody of the Nixon records and files in 1977, after the Supreme Court upheld the Presidential Recordings and Materials Act (PRMA). Implementing regulations are available at 36 CFR 1275. The Nixon records statute calls on NARA to release “the full truth” about Watergate “at the earliest reasonable date.”

Dr. Kutler filed a lawsuit after writing to NARA in December 1991. He then asked about release of materials related to Watergate. Mr. Fawcett responded in January 1992 with a letter informing Dr. Kutler that all “integral file segments” relating to Watergate abuses of power had been released. At the time, 63 such hours of information were open. Believing there was unreleased Watergate information, Dr. Kutler went to court. (In 1996, after the settlement of Dr. Kutler’s lawsuit, NARA released an additional 200 hours of Watergate-related tape segments.)

The article by Ms. Smith and Mr. Stern states that "The archival review of the Nixon White House Tapes started with an initial review of the tapes by Nixon tape processing archivists, which occurred between 1981 and 1987." This is what lawyers representing NARA told the court in 1992 when Kutler filed his lawsuit for access to Nixon's tapes (Kutler v. Wilson).

The fact that lawyers in 1992 represented work done with the tapes between 1981 and 1987 as being “initial review” makes for an interesting story. There are other ways to look at this, as the citations I provide below suggest. This is where you should start your classroom exercise.

Kutler's attorneys asked for document production in 1992 and called a number of witnesses to testify during Kutler v. Wilson. Among the documents entered in the court record is the Nixon Project's Fiscal Year 1987 Annual Work Plan, which stated that "final archival review and technical processing of the White House tapes will be completed during the second quarter of FY 87." The Work Plan, which was entered into evidence during the litigation, did not refer to this work as "initial review."

The use of the term "final review" comports with what I and other available witnesses remember from events during 1981-1987.

In addition to the NARA Work Plan, the term "final review" of tape segments also was used in other documents included in the court record. This includes letters signed during the early and mid-1980s by senior Archives officials, such as then Assistant Archivist for Presidential Libraries, James O’Neill. Correspondence sent by NARA during the early and mid-1980s to Nixon's lawyers stated that "we have completed final review" of tape segments.

A contemporaneous view of NARA’s Nixon Presidential Materials Project is available in Clement E. Vose’s article, The Nixon Project, in PS, Summer 1983. The article stated that according to the director of the Nixon Project, “it will take three more years to duplicate all tapes, log them, excerpt restricted material, and organize them for listening.” This also implied that the work would be completed around 1986, which fits with the actual completion of “final review” in 1987. In fact, NARA’s management officials approved a handout, provided to the public, which stated that “archival processing” of Nixon’s tapes “will be completed in 1987.”

Many other signs pointed to completion of the tapes processing in the late 1980s. In 1989, Bruce Oudes noted in his book, From: The President (1989), that “the Archives has . . . advised Nixon that it plans the systematic release of the balance of his White House tapes in 1991, the twentieth anniversary of the installation of the White House taping system.”

During my work as a Nixon tapes archivist, I met H. R. Haldeman, Nixon’s former White House chief of staff. Haldeman worked for the J. Walter Thompson Agency before joining the Nixon White House. The former advertising executive seemed comfortable with the thought of Nixon’s tapes being released. In his post-Watergate writing, he provided straightforward accounts of what was happening at the National Archives.

Haldeman noted in 1988 in an article he published in NARA's magazine, Prologue, that processing of the tapes was nearly complete and the public soon would begin hearing Nixon's conversations. Haldeman wrote “The time has finally come, almost fifteen years after the end of the Nixon administration, when one may reasonably look forward to hearing . . . portions of the White House tapes. The National Archives’ processing of the tapes is virtually complete, and the agency is nearly ready to go forward with a schedule of phased openings.” Haldeman wrote in Prologue in 1988 that “The opening of the entire four thousand hours of White House tapes is . . . just around the corner."

John Ehrlichman also wrote about planned releases of the tapes, stating in 1986 that the Archives had “another year’s work to do, editing and getting the log into the word processor.” (Ehrlichman, “Should Nixon’s Tapes be Public,” Parade, November 30, 1986)

NARA archivist Paul A. Schmidt, who spent years preparing the tapes for release, wrote in a staff paper in 1985 on “opening the Nixon tapes” that “archival processing of the Nixon tapes is nearing completion.” He described as the next step for NARA consideration of how to handle the public opening. His paper, approved for release by senior NARA management, did not describe a second review of the tapes prior to this opening. (Paul Schmidt, The Opening of the Nixon White House Tapes, May 8, 1985. Schmidt’s paper is publicly available in the National Archives’ library).

Historian Joan Hoff wrote in 1988 that although “the Archives has basically completed processing the tapes and prepared a 27,000-page finding aid for researchers” lawyers for Nixon complained that “the review process agreed to in the 1979 ‘negotiated agreement’ has not proven feasible with respect to these controversial secret tapings and that, therefore, they should be reviewed again using stricter privacy standards.” (Joan Hoff-Wilson, Papers of the Nixon White House microform guide, Part 2, the President’s Meeting Files, 1969-1974, page vi.)

Around this same time, Stephen Ambrose echoed this story, which clearly derived from officials at NARA, writing in his Nixon biography that “four thousand hours of White House tapes, although processed by the Archives. . . which is ready to release them, also remain under seal, as a result of legal objections by Nixon’s lawyers.”

Nixon’s agents did not review the tapes processed by NARA between 1981-1987. Seymour Hersh would write in an article in the New Yorker in 1992 that The Nixon people. . . could listen to any of the reviewed recordings they wished, but—to the surprise of the archivists—they made no real effort in those years to keep up with the intensive work being done.”

While Nixon’s agents largely ignored the tapes during the 1980s, they did review many of the documents in the Nixon White House files held by NARA. As the National Archives neared completion of its screening of documents most likely to contain Watergate material (the so-called White House Special Files), Nixon’s lawyers hired several agents to look through the materials government archivists had okayed for disclosure. In 1987, when the National Archives sought to open to the public the White House Special Files, Nixon’s lawyers blocked release of some of them.

Nixon’s lawyer, R. Stan Mortenson of Miller, Cassidy, Larroca & Lewin, argued in 1987 that the Nixon records act’s regulations were “capricious and constitute an abuse of discretion . . . the regulations too narrowly define ‘private or personal’ materials as those ‘relating solely to a person's family or other non-governmental activities.’” His letter was released under the Freedom of Information Act and a copy made available in the Nixon Project’s research room during the late 1980s.

Nixon in 1987 blocked NARA from releasing 42,191 documents that its archivists had marked for public disclosure. After receiving Nixon's objections, NARA considered what to do with them for nearly 10 years. Since your class is considering what to do in 1992, you must end the exercise here.

But you later can tell the class that Nixon died in 1994. In 1996, the Archives announced that it had decided to retain in its custody 75% of the 42,191 contested documents and to open most of them. The rest were returned to Nixon’s estate.

Remind members of your class that they should craft stories that protect NARA, its researchers, Nixon, and DOJ. The story that lawyers told in court in 1992 about “initial review" of Nixon’s tapes did not do that. That is why I referred at the beginning of this posting to the hand that Mr. Stern, who joined NARA in 1998, was dealt but played no part in crafting while the litigation was ongoing.

Jack Hitt drew a bleak picture in Harper’s in his 1994 article, “Nixon’s Last Trump.” He described Nixon’s “cunning flirtation” with top NARA administrators through which “he got exactly what he wanted: complicity on the part of the archives administrators . . . to prevent the working archivists from releasing the tapes.” Hitt wrote that the pressure against disclosure reduced NARA’s managers to “obedient sycophants.” Harsh words, not ones I imagine that any lawyer or public affairs official -- or perhaps even a former President -- would want to see appearing in print about an agency that holds the nation's records in trust for the public.

While the litigation was ongoing between 1992 and 1996, Kutler’s lawyers noted in a pleading that
“While the Archives characterizes the relationship between Mr. Nixon and the Archives as a ‘consultative relationship,’ under the Archives’ regulations, former President Nixon does not serve as a consultant to assist the agency in its processing of the Nixon materials. Rather, he is a potential challenger of the Archives’ processing decisions. . . It is hard to imagine someone who is more of a past and potential adversary of the Archives. . . it is in the context of such litigation threats that Mr. Nixon is attempting to influence archival decisions, as is borne out by the Mortenson Declaration, which confirms that Mr. Nixon uses litigation threats as bargaining chips to convince the Archives to change its archival processing.”

Finally, here is what historian Stanley Kutler said of the delays in releasing the Nixon tapes in an interview shortly after the settlement of a lawsuit that he filed in 1992. Note especially the last sentence in the quote from the interview, below. This is from 1997, after the publication of Dr. Kutler's book, Abuse Of Power:

“MARGARET WARNER: All right. Now, briefly, how did you get access to these tapes?

STANLEY KUTLER: Well, the tapes were ready. They had been processed by 1987, and the National Archives promised an imminent release, which didn't come yet after five years. I had made numerous requests and finally thought there was no other place to go but to the courts, and along with Public Citizen, I filed suit—

MARGARET WARNER: That's an organization.

STANLEY KUTLER: Public interest law firm--filed suit in 1992, and the settlement came down four years later--two years after Richard Nixon's death. I have no doubt that Nixon's death enabled us to finally settle the case because in his lifetime I am certain he simply would not consent to the release of these tapes.”

for the transcript.

Comment submitted at 8:37 p.m. Eastern time, March 7, 2007, by Maarja Krusten, historian and former NARA Nixon tapes archivist (1976-1990)

At 6:29 AM, Blogger Richard J. Cox said...

Thanks Maarja for the interesting post, here and elsewhere, about presidential records and the role of the National Archives. I remind hopeful that you will write one tightly focused essay about your sense of the Nixon tapes case, conveniently published in one place for use by archivists, historians, and students preparing to be archivists or historians. You clearly have a lot to offer about the case and its implications,

At 6:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for your kind words! Perhaps I will write something one day but I don't really have the time to do so right now while I am a full-time employee. The Nixon records story is very complicated and some parts of it are more easily told in public than others. Of course, I'm a party of interest, not a neutral bystander, so I try to make it clear that there is more than one way to look at some of this. I hope the people at NARA understand that, also. I have no idea why lawyers told NARA's story the way they did in 1992, I would have taken a different approach than they did, obviously. The Chronicle of Higher Education this week headlined its story about the new head of the Nixon library as the scholarly salesman. In many ways, I feel sorry for anyone, especially a person trained in history, who joined NARA after the Kutler case was settled but who has to continue to play using some of the cards dealt in 1992.

Maarja (submitted at 6:53 am on March 8, 2007)


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