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Guarding the Past

The Archivist's Mild Manner Belies the Uproar Over His New Job

By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 31, 2005; Page C01


Sniping at Allen Weinstein from ivory towers.

Blasting him in the blogosphere.

Allen Weinstein, whose appointment has some historians concerned about access, says "the archivist works for the American people." (Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)

Suggesting he could become an accomplice in presidential coverups.

He's been called a stonewaller and a "sloppy" manager. His scholarship has been challenged, his appointment questioned. The guy's been slapped around more than the third Stooge.

He would like to get on with his formidable tasks as the newly confirmed Archivist of the United States -- the ninth since 1934 -- but try as he might, he just can't escape the thing that has gotten him where he is: the past.

When you finally see Weinstein, at his ceremonial swearing-in at the McGowan Theater in the National Archives on a recent Monday morning, it's hard to believe that he is what he is: a porch light for the moths of controversy.

He is a slight 67-year-old man with a slight voice and slight wisps of gray hair. He's in a standard-issue blue suit, white shirt, red tie and wire-rims. Wally Cox might have played him in the movies; Dana Carvey in a remake. At the pre-swearing-in reception, he shuffles from person to person in a deliberate fashion, floatingly, like a ghost.

Before administering the oath of office, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg tells the crowd of 300 that Weinstein is "a scholar whose work I have long admired."

He just sort of appears at the lectern and swears, with his right hand raised, to do the right thing. When he turns to give his inaugural speech, the microphone is not working and no one can hear a word he says. A technician adjusts things so that if you strain, you can hear him. And, speaking very softly and very swiftly, he stakes out his claim of sovereignty.

"Under my stewardship," he vows in his first official appearance before staff and world, the Archives "will remain non-political and professional."

Weinstein (rhymes with fine-wine) has heard a lot of the criticism. Before sitting down to answer a few questions, he sends word through an intermediary that he hopes the interview will be forward-looking.

Odd request, coming from a historian. The bases of two statues at the Pennsylvania Avenue entrance to the Archives read: "Study the past" and "What is past is prologue."

In his office in late afternoon, Weinstein is at a table. Susan L. Cooper, the Archives' director of public affairs, and Adrienne Dominguez, Weinstein's wife, insist on sitting in. He doesn't object. His wife hops in with answers and opinions on occasion. Weinstein talks about his childhood, his professional past and the challenges ahead.

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