- Historic Sites
A recent presidential edict will make it harder for historians to practice their trade.
August/September 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 4
When “the unanimous declaration of the thirteen United States of America” was distributed on July 4, 1776, its fourth complaint against the King of Great Britain read: “He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable and distant from the depository of their Public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.”
On November 1 of last year President Bush signed Executive Order 13233, a document that by blocking access to the Reagan archives clearly reverses recent trends toward openness in presidential records, elevating Executive privilege over the public’s right to know. My reaction was to send him copies of my books on Presidents Kennedy and Nixon. I said that they might be worth something someday as artifacts because it would have been impossible to write them under his new order. I also enclosed a copy of a letter I had received from his father, George H. W. Bush, the forty-first President. The old man said he thought President Nixon: Alone in the White House was an important contribution to history. He added, though, that before he read it, he looked at the index to see what was said about him: “It wasn’t so bad. They never laid a glove on me—except for Henry Kissinger always calling me an idiot.”
That letter and the books, too, are probably classified by now.
I have been plowing through presidential papers for more than 15 years and think I have some insight into the thinking of those with power over this kind of information. They do not subscribe to the idea that what people don’t know can indeed hurt them. My favorite find was an inscription by the Irish writer Brendan Behan in the Kennedy Library, classified for 25 years, apparently because it was on a copy of the Evergreen Review , considered something of a dirty book in those days. Having finally gotten them to let me see it, I read: “To my lantsman John Kennedy—Best, Brendan Behan.” Thank goodness the American people were protected from that.
The fight to see presidential papers is an old one, going back to things the father of our country wanted forgotten. That other guy named George—Washington was his last name—took his papers home to Mount Vernon, thinking they were nobody’s business but his, and he was outraged that members of Congress wanted to see documentation of casualties in the Indian wars of the early Republic. Commenting on that and other presidential notions, James Madison wrote to a friend in 1822: “A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
Not everyone agreed. Abraham Lincoln’s papers were not opened until 1949. They were considered private property, a legal condition that Richard Nixon changed—by accident. The abuses of Watergate led to new laws that opened papers to scholars, historians, journalists, and even ordinary citizens. It is those laws and procedures President Bush seems determined to reverse.
To someone like me, those papers are almost self-protecting for the Executive branch. First, Presidents and their governments have the right and power to exclude almost anything on the grounds of national security, Executive privilege, or personal privacy. Then, there are just too many papers. Even though much was destroyed and more lost, there are 44 million pages of President Nixon’s papers in the National Archives—and millions more in other repositories—along with thousands of hours of tape recordings. (There are more than 50 million oaees of Reagan papers.)