Monday, November 12, 2007

More Insight into Archives, the Clinton Records, and NCH Reporting

The Clinton records saga rolls on. Maarja Krusten has commented on my last post and adds some helpful insight into the problems faced by archivists in her HNN articles When Archivists Deal with Power Players and Look Before You Leap into Presidential Libraries . In the comments, Krusten notes:
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....It is not useful to the National Archives for newspapers to frame issues in a political manner.


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.
Krusten also points out that the NCH has updated their reporting on the Clinton Records story and its nice to see that they have begun to include more sources (like the Newsweek piece or the work of the NY Sun) that contain criticisms of the Clintons. Apparently, the NCH has realized that there may be two sides to the story and that their "traditional framing" (Krusten's phrase) may not stack up.

It is not true that all of the records relating to the Clinton Administration’s Health Care Task Force have already been released. As noted above, the National Archives has admitted that over three million paper documents and e-mails relating to the topic remain under review at the Clinton Library.

And what is the practical impact of the letter that President Clinton sent to the National Archives in 2002, which Tim Russert alleged was delaying the release of records relating to then First Lady Hillary Clinton? According to an article in the New York Sun this week, it may not be that relevant after all.

The Sun interviewed attorney Scott Nelson of the Public Citizen Litigation Group, who represented the American Historical Association in its lawsuit to overturn President Bush’s Executive Order 13233....Nelson told the Sun, “It [the letter] starts off saying, ‘I want to be really open about this stuff,’ but, you know if you compare the categories that he [President Clinton] says would be considered for withholding. . . .they encompass most of what is within the scope of these restrictions.” He went on to say that the former president’s letter would not change “99.4% of what the [advice] restriction category applies to in the first place.”


Anonymous said...

Hillary supporters: listen folks, please don’t get discouraged. PLEASE. She is getting attacked from all sides because people deep down know she is our only hope for America and they’re trying to ruin it for everybody. Hillary is the ONLY candidate with these 4 attributes: honor, patriotism, loyalty, and kindness. I got $35 in the bank that says no other candidate has those attributes.

Anonymous said...

Scott Nelson is a good authority on matters relating to Presidential records. I know him, he once worked for the law firm that represented Richard Nixon. In that capacity, he questioned me when I gave sworn testimony in a deposition in 1992 in a lawsuit that involved Richard Nixon's White House tapes. Mr. Nelson later went to work for a public interest group, Public Citizen, on whose behalf he has testified in recent years at several hearings about the legal and historical aspects of the Presidential Records Ac. He's definitely is an expert on Presidential records, having worked as a litigator on behalf of a former President and more recently on behalf of the research public.