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Guarding the Past

Historian Ralph E. Luker, whose work appears in the Cliopatria blog on the History News Network site, writes this about Weinstein: "There lurks the deep suspicion that the Bush administration was rushing to replace Carlin with a more malleable Archivist."

Weinstein is well aware that many people believe he was a political appointment. But he says he doesn't really know the people in the White House. He says he has met George W. Bush only once -- in 1988 -- and he has never met Karl Rove.


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

Weinstein says the president appoints the archivist, "but the archivist works for the American people."

Some historians suggest the ouster occured because Bush believed he might lose the 2004 election and was concerned that his father's presidential papers -- and his own -- could fall into unfriendly hands. "All presidents want their secrets protected," Wiener says. "It's the archivist who is in the middle."

Stanley Kutler, a law professor and historian at the University of Wisconsin, says that Weinstein's appointment, and Senate confirmation last month, raises a critical question about contemporary America. "It's a kind of litmus test of the nature of our society," Kutler says. "Here's a professional historian: Is he going to be the Archivist of the United States or a political subordinate? I don't know what to expect."

Sam Tanenhaus thinks Weinstein will do just fine. The author of "Whitaker Chambers: A Biography" and editor of the New York Times Book Review, says that Weinstein "is a major historian and someone whose interest is in finding the truth. I think it's a coup for the country to have a scholar of his gifts as archivist."

He is well known among history scholars for undergoing a philosophical transformation while writing "Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case," published in 1978. He went into the research believing that Hiss was innocent of spying, he says, and he came out thinking Hiss was guilty.

To some, Weinstein is the consummate historian: rising above personal leanings and letting the facts dictate his conclusion. To others, Weinstein is seen as a traitor to the left.

Weinstein is used to being in the middle. He is a registered Democrat, while having obvious ties to the Republican Party. His first wife, Diane, was Dan Quayle's attorney. Weinstein served on Ronald Reagan's transition team in the 1980s. In 1985, he founded the Center for Democracy, a Washington-based foundation that encouraged democracy in other countries.

"Allen had a very, very good reputation around the world," says former congresswoman Barbara Kennelly, a Connecticut Democrat who was on the center's board of directors. "He is a very thoughtful man and very well respected for his good judgment. He's incredibly kind."

The son of Russian immigrants, Weinstein was born in New York in 1937, the youngest of three children. His parents were deli owners in the Bronx. He played stickball and handball and hung out in the public library not far from his home. On Tuesdays, when the deli was closed, his parents took him to the movies or a Broadway show. He graduated from City College of New York, then received post-grad degrees from Yale University. He taught at Smith College for nearly 15 years.

Daniel Aaron, a history professor at Harvard, taught with Weinstein at Smith. He doesn't think Weinstein's politics have ever influenced his approach to history. "He was always a very sound historian," says Aaron, "and always preoccupied with evidence."

At the swearing-in, he races through his plans for the future. No one is surprised that he wants to save essential electronic government records and extend the archival experience to citizens outside of Washington. But he calls on the Bush administration to reconsider its budget and to restore funding to the archives' grantmaking wing.

"This action demonstrates the new archivist's independence," says the National Coalition for History's Craig. In the near future, Weinstein may face his first major test. The Richard M. Nixon Library and Birthplace in California was organized by President Nixon and his supporters before he died and today is a privately run institution. The library, which is not under the aegis of the National Archives, wants the Nixon documents that have been stored at the National Archives since 1974 to be moved to California. Congress voted last year to allow the relocation. But historians are concerned that if the papers are moved there, their integrity might be jeopardized.


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