- Historic Sites
A recent presidential edict will make it harder for historians to practice their trade.
August/September 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 4
So now we live in a new historical reality, although plenty of the old tricks still work. Under any system it is the White House that controls classification involving security, privilege, and privacy. And, as Bush is demonstrating, there is always the possibility of ex post facto vetting. The best example of that was in the Kennedy Papers. In the early 1970s The New York Times investigated a rumor that Vice President Spiro Agnew was being ministered to by a New York doctor named Max Jacobson, better known later in tabloids as “Dr. Feelgood,” who, it turned out, gave amphetamines to celebrities of all colors and creeds, including President Kennedy. The Times could prove no Agnew connection, but its questioning around New York led the state medical board to revoke Dr. Jacobson’s license to practice. Then an interesting thing happened in Boston. From the day in 1972 that Jacobson was revealed by the Times , documents bearing his name began to disappear from the Kennedy archives, and none were processed after that. He was being “non-personed.” Luckily for me, though, earlier airplane manifestoes and hotel rosters and private photographs did prove that Jacobson had traveled with Kennedy. I was also able to turn up his diary, describing him standing outside the door when Kennedy and Soviet Premier Khrushchev met in Vienna in 1961, ready to shoot up the President if he tired.
“We have been notified that your request for permission to consult Alexander Haig Papers has been denied. Please let me know if we can be of any further assistance.”
No matter what archival system is used, families and former aides will try to protect Presidents and their reputations. They will try to create and write their own history and block outsiders from challenging the official version. I assume that a desire to protect his father is one of President Bush’s reasons for resisting public scrutiny of Reagan’s papers. But I believe that is only one of the reasons for Executive Order 13233. The real problem for recent Presidents has been papers related to assassinations and assassination attempts. Castro. Diem. Trujillo. Lumumba. Allende. The American people are uncomfortable with the idea of a President’s signing death warrants before the subjects (targets) are dead. That practice stopped, I believe, after the 1975 Church Committee hearings on the doings of the Central Intelligence Agency. The United States government got out of the assassination business for a time.
Obviously they’re back in it, with Osama bin Laden at the top of the list. Now at the same time we are tracking down bin Laden, the globalization we cherish, which has done so much for us economically, is having unintended consequences. One, of course, is global terror. Another is the rise of global law. I don’t think President George W. Bush wants to be sitting in a courtroom in the Hague 20 years from now explaining why he signed a national security directive ordering the summary execution of CIA-identified terrorists. Better to keep the records secret—or destroy them.
But it is, in fact, almost impossible to destroy records. The greatest historian, or historical tool, of the past half-century has been the Xerox machine. Now that we have the hard drive, can anything really be erased any more? In writing President Nixon , I was convinced that new technology could re-create the famous 18½-minute gap on the Nixon tapes. But you need the original tape to try that experiment, and the government would not let anyone touch that little magnetized strip. I notice now, though, that the National Archives says it is going to attempt it.
There are also a hundred other ways to find documents. You can triangulate from existing papers, old journalism and withdrawal slips, and new interviews. There comes a moment when you realize there had to be an order—and you go looking for it. Or someone tells you, “I meant to donate my papers, but I never got around to it. They’re in the garage. Do you want to take a look?” One critical source for President Kennedy offered to allow me to stay in his office as long as I wanted to, even overnight, to read his handwritten notes on the Elsenhower-Kennedy transition in 1961. And in these days of special prosecutors and criminal and civil investigations of White House doings, there are court records. Much of what I discovered about Watergate did not come from Justice Department and FBI archives sanitized with black inkblots covering names and key phrases. There were sparkling clean copies of the same documents in the courthouse across the street. Thank you again, Xerox.