Monday, November 05, 2007

The NCH and Clinton Records - A Comment, A Response

In a comment to my last post concerning how the NCH is playing the ongoing Clinton records debate, "allida" writes:
I have worked in presidential records for more than a decade and edit a documentary edition which contain vast numbers of presidential records. Furthermore, I have relied on FOIAs for the past decade in my research on the policy work First Ladies conducted while in the White House.

Consequently, I know this procedure inside out and backwards.

The NCH is explaining procedures correctly--and accurately. It took me 10 years to get material on Nancy Reagan. Barbara Bush's records are frozen. And a significant amount of Rosalynn Carter's papers are unaccessible because Carter Library staff is so short it cannot accession already processed (and open) material.

Just because 1) NCH took the time to explain the law and the current NARA staffing crisis,2) the Archives doesn't have the staff to meet the high demand of FOIAs, and 3) Clinton muffed the answer, doesn't mean there is bias.
I appreciate the insight and, like I said before, I want open access, too. I also don't find fault with the NCH's explanation as far as it goes. I just don't think they are explaining enough. In their press releases they don't seem to put much stock in the possibility that President Clinton may actually have something to do with holding up the release of his own records.

And while he says he wants open access, President Clinton sure does exclude a lot of documents in his memo to NARA asking for a quick release, including "communications directly between the President and First Lady, and their families, unless routine in nature." That sure covers a lot, doesn't it?

Hey maybe it isn't bias. Maybe the NCH is just being sloppy in their reporting.

1 comment:

Maarja Krusten said...

NCH provides an update on the issues in its November 9, 200 issue, see
http://historycoalition.org/2007/11/09/controversy-shifts-to-release-of-clinton-health-care-task-force-records/

As someone who once worked with Presidential records as an employee of the National Archives (I now work as an historian elsewhere), I haven’t found that NCH, AHA or any outside source does a very good job at illuminating issues relating to the Presidential Libraries that the Archives administers.

Presidential Libraries have an archival component and a museum component. Dr. Benjamin Hufbauer, a professor of art history, does a good job in looking at the museum angle in his book, Presidential Temples: How Memorials and Libraries Shape Public Memory, but no one really has looked at the archival side in depth. With so little out there, I’m not surprised many people fill the void with speculation or even their own biases, as a result. Opening records actually is very complicated because few human beings would face with equanimity the opening of their paper trails during their lifetimes. But I don’t think our culture permits former Presidents, regardless of party, to admit that this can be scary.

The press largely focuses on individual controversies and usually fails to provide sufficient context for readers. Pundits and editorial writers often look at the issues through a narrow lens, offer a set point of view, or leave out some information altogether. Dan Froomkin of the Washington Post has written extensively about the controversy over email records at the Bush White House but to date has not delved into the Clinton records issues that arose after the last debate

On the other hand, despite having voted for Ronald Reagan, I was very disappointed when the Washington Times, which leans right, editorialized in 1994 that disputes within the National Archives centered on “Access to the personal, private papers of recent presidents, access that liberal activists have long sought but until now have been unable to gain.” The newspaper suggested that the disputes involved records at the Reagan Presidential Library. When an Archives Inspector General report later revealed that the internal disputes focused in part on whether Archives officials automatically had to close records that objective archivists had marked as disclosable under pertinent statutes, but to which a former President offered objections—an issue that potentially affected the records of Presidents of both parties--the Washington Times never shared that with its readers.

It is not useful to the National Archives for newspapers to frame issues in a political manner. (In the interests of full disclosure, I should mention that from 1968, when I worked on Richard Nixon’s campaign while a senior in high school, until about 1988 or 1989, I considered myself a Republican. For the last twenty years, I have self-identified as an Independent, unaffiliated with any party. Although one of Richard Nixon’s representatives once implied that I was a liberal, perhaps because I have advocated more independence for the National Archives, I am not. I actually used to call myself a conservative during the 1970s and much of the 1980s. )

In truth, the National Archives has faced a difficult transition since 1974 from a system in which Presidents actually owned their records and had a great deal of power of them to a system of public control. I discuss some of this in two articles, “When Archivists Deal with Power Players,” at
http://hnn.us/articles/35891.html
and
“Look Before You Leap into Presidential Libraries,” (which cautions against kneejerk reactions) at
http://hnn.us/articles/34128.html

Much depends on the people involved. As a result, the traditional framing, with Republicans cast as the withholders of records and Democrats cast as supporters of disclosure, doesn’t always fit. Gerald Ford believed that "presidential papers, except for the most highly sensitive documents involving our national security, should be made available to the public . . . and the sooner the better." By all accounts, the release of his records went smoothly. His Library has a good reputation among the Presidential Libraries administered by the National Archives.

You really have to consider the psychology of disclosure, why it can be difficult to achieve, and also to consider the potential challenges for the National Archives as a subordinate agency within the executive branch. As someone who has grappled with these issues, I don't find what AHA or NCH -- or most outsiders -- write to be nearly as nuanced as I would like.