washingtonpost.com
Newshounds on the Paper Chase

By Dana Milbank
Friday, August 19, 2005

The throng of journalists lined up outside the National Archives yesterday morning made the place look like the Uptown Theater on "Star Wars" opening night, without the storm trooper costumes.

They had come to examine 39,000 pages of the paper trail of Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr. -- perhaps even to find the smoking gun that would brand him a hard-edged conservative or a closet moderate -- and they vied fiercely for 71 boxes of 20-year-old documents.

"Box 11 is good," said one.

"Nine might be interesting," posited another.

"Box 48 has Sandinista Violations. That's good stuff."

When New York Times reporter Anne Kornblut reached the front of the line, she requested Box 51.

"No," said Archives official James Hastings, checking his list of available files. "But I can give you a nice special on 47."

"Box 34?" she ventured.

"Gone," Hastings said, proposing Box 36.

"Thirty-two?"

"No."

"Twenty-seven?"

"No."

"You're killing me," replied the determined Kornblut, who finally settled for Box 2.

"I had six I wanted, and now I'm getting the Airline Deregulation Act," she lamented.

The Archives staff, accustomed to the calm rhythms of scholarship, handled the document dump -- unprecedented in size and speed -- with good cheer, even as TV cameras hit researchers' heads and journalists clogged passageways.

"I want to welcome all of you to the East Coast opening of the John Roberts files from the Ronald Reagan library," assistant archivist Sharon Fawcett said in front of six TV cameras, four still cameras, two boom microphones and 100 heavily caffeinated reporters, including such brand names as Nina Totenberg, Pete Williams and Jim Angle. "We wish you great luck in searching the files."

In the end, the Roberts researchers needed more than luck. They found plenty of amusing things in the papers, including Roberts's views of the Marine Mammal Coalition and the propriety of President Ronald Reagan's use of the word "keister." ("It may depend on where one was reared," Roberts had joked.) But there wasn't the definitive document that revealed Roberts's views on such charged topics as Roe v. Wade or affirmative action.

Most news outlets brought three readers, but the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Mike McGough came alone. "I'm a self-taught speed reader," he explained. The overwhelmed readers agreed to share some of their findings with each other -- but the pressure was still intense.

Archivists drew names from a large, yellow suggestion box, as if performing the NFL draft. USA Today, with the first pick in the first round, went with Box 49, "set-aside cases." Reuters, picking second, chose Box 1, "advisory committees." ABC News got Box 6, "briefing materials," and Fox News selected Box 11, "Contra Aid."

The boxes distributed, the room took on the tense, quiet mood of a place where the SAT is being administered. Readers pored over pages and folders, scribbling. Cameras circled. One cameraman, for lack of something better to do, was filming an empty box; to his right, a sign on the wall proclaimed: "This is your heritage."

The mood soon turned again to disappointment. USA Today's Joan Biskupic returns her first-round draft pick, Box 49, after just a few minutes. Anything good? "I'm bringing it back, aren't I?" she replied. The New York Sun's Josh Gerstein returned Box 7 with equal speed. "The body was decent, but the finish left something to be desired," he judged. And the others found the same thing. NBC? "Nothing." Fox? "Nah." Boston Globe? "Nothing."

An hour into the search, the readers had found only a quarter-inch stack worthy of photocopying combined. "Pimples of history," said the Times's Todd Purdum.

Gerstein gathered his belongings and left. "Not a valuable activity," he decided.

By 3 p.m., the collection of documents worth copying had reached only 48, and that included pages about the restoration of the Reagan boyhood home, briefings about the San Antonio transit authority, and a debate about whether there should be an application fee for White House press passes.

Reporters, wearing the bemused faces of people who had been the victims of a practical joke, were concluding that the best files had been released in earlier document dumps. The most damning document yesterday, in fact, may have been one from young Roberts saying proposals from future Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter "are the epitome of the 'throw money at the problem' approach."

"I haven't found anything," NPR's Totenberg reported.

"We're going to lead with the Marine Mammal Commission," said Jeanne Cummings of the Wall Street Journal.

NBC's Williams shook his head. "I can't get enough about soybean imports," he said darkly and walked toward the door.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company