President Obama’s executive order regarding presidential records is a victory for future historians. (See here) Truly it is a new day for GWBs future historians. Before January 20, 2009, the future biographers of GWB faced a difficult road in the true telling of their history. While they will probably have many, many accounts from people who worked in the administration; because of the actions of the 43rd President; they would have lacked important archival materials. Important documents that would have shed light on important issues of the last administration such as Iraq, the recent economic crises, Katrina, and other domestic and international events. However, the recent executive order makes their road a somewhat easier one.
As Nixon historians, we have some experience in dealing with historical materials — so we know the future historians’ pain. We are aware that it seems that the 43rd president is compared with the 37th president quite a lot these days. Often it is not in the best light. However, one way in which they are quite different is the resources that historians will have to assess their presidencies. As a result of this executive order, the difference has narrowed.
We, as Nixon historians are quite fortunate in the resources we possess. Not only do we have thousands of books, including memoirs from people were a part of the administration; we also have 42 million documents concerning Richard Nixon’s presidential years. As an extra added benefit, we also have thousands of hours of White House tapes where historians are given an unprecedented view into Richard Nixon’s deliberations and personality. Because of the error that later turned out to be for Nixon, future presidents will not be providing that sort of access again.
With the access of the tapes, comes also a solemn responsibility. It is the responsibility of the Nixon historian that we always keep in mind the different circumstances and context that the tapes were produced in. Mr. Gannon in a recent post (Refresher Course, December 19, 2008) gives an important perspective into that.
Because of these comprehensive historical materials and both primary and secondary source material; we as Nixon historians have the tools necessary for a three dimensional view of Richard Nixon for future Americans and scholars.
Future historians of George W. Bush however will have a more difficult time in assessing his presidency. While is fundamentally true that the effects of the Nixon years, and the Presidential Records Act of 1978 have altered the archival landscape; the current administration has been bent on secrecy and in covering up the historical record.
Superseding the previous Executive Order by President Reagan and the National Archives regulation in August 2001 on release of Presidential materials, President George W. Bush had limited access to presidential records past and present by Executive Order 13233.(1) The Presidential Communication privilege limited the American people from viewing the actual interworkings of history being made. As we have seen throughout the Bush Administration, the deletion of important e-mails and other documents have been infamous, and will place future nonpartisan historians into a real disadvantage in any event.
Recently in the news, Vice President Cheney has asserted his control of his records, away from the prying eyes of future historians and Americans. The US District Court decision a few days ago regarding Vice President Cheney’s records creates much doubt whether or not these records will be preserved and transferred to the Archives has required under federal law. Making the vice president responsible for determining how the records are dealt with is like having a fox responsible for guarding a hen house.
But there is a new day for America’s historians as well. Quoting from the White House press release:
“The Executive Order on Presidential Records brings those principles to presidential records by giving the American people greater access to these historic documents. This order ends the practice of having others besides the President assert executive privilege for records after an administration ends. Now, only the President will have that power, limiting its potential for abuse. And the order also requires the Attorney General and the White House Counsel to review claims of executive privilege about covered records to make sure those claims are fully warranted by the Constitution.”
For any serious future historians, the goal must be the true telling of history. For the biographers, this will lead to the timeless biography that will be consulted for years to come. We, as Nixon historians, are fortunate to have the tools available to accomplish this. In light of the Obama order: the GWB biographer has a better opportunity to tell the true story as well.
(1) The Bush Order created new privileges, (such as the presidential communications privilege) for restricting documents past the 12 year limit established in the Presidential Materials Act of 1978, and supported by the previous executive order of President Reagan, gives former presidents the right of executive privilege over their documents after their term of office, which the incumbent president could have closed these records permanently.