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For History's Sake, Nothing Like a Paper Trail

By Russell L. Riley
Sunday, November 6, 2005

While much of Washington has been focused over the past week on reports about Vice President Cheney's early discussions of Valerie Plame's identity, little notice has been given to something equally surprising about these revelations -- their source. Investigators looking into the case reportedly found evidence of these meetings in former vice presidential aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's own notes of conversations he had with Cheney.

White House alumni across political lines -- and others wise to Washington's current ways -- have undoubtedly had the same incredulous reaction on first hearing this news: You mean he actually wrote it down?

Ever since President Richard M. Nixon got tangled up in the transcripts of his own tape recordings, the White House has operated more and more as an oral culture. Anything that shows up in written records can become a target for a hostile investigator. Accordingly, White House staffers have learned over the last few decades that the less committed to paper or computer, the better.

Those gaps in the written record have made my job -- recording oral histories -- more important than ever. But these imperfect recollections, however candid and enlightening, cannot capture the tone nor match the accuracy of contemporaneous notes.

Both parties have had their own tragic experiences in self-incrimination. On the Republican side, Nixon's Oval Office tapes gave his critics all the ammunition they needed to run him out of Washington. President Ronald Reagan's national security team imploded when its inept attempts to delete sensitive e-mail files failed to account for a central White House back-up system, thereby exposing to the world a remarkable web of deception it had spun surrounding the Iran-contra affair.

On a smaller scale, but no less consequential as an object lesson in the price of keeping written records, was the experience of the Democrats' Josh Steiner, then 28-year-old chief of staff to Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen. In 1994, Steiner was called before a congressional committee investigating questionable contacts between Treasury and the Clinton White House, and found himself in the unenviable position of having his personal diary, detailing his office's activities (as well as his term of endearment for his girlfriend), exposed to the world and having to deny that its embarrassing contents accurately represented reality.

Former chiefs of staff James A. Baker III and John Sununu have both said publicly that by the time George H.W. Bush became president in 1989, senior officials knew better than to keep meaningful written records of key meetings. These claims have been confirmed by scores of White House staffers, both Democrat and Republican, in confidential oral history interviews conducted by the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs over the last five years.

The hostile investigative climate during the Clinton presidency made those serving in that White House especially cautious. Blanket subpoenas from congressional investigators and an army of independent counsels became so commonplace that most Clinton officials developed coping mechanisms to protect themselves. The simplest was to avoid creating documents, such as meeting notes or diaries, in the first place. One political aide, according to oral history interviews with two of his colleagues,kept each day's essential observations on a single index card, which was ritually deposited in a shredder on the way out the door each night. Others learned that, when internal documents had to be constructed, they should be written only in what is termed "discoverable language," meaning language that will do no harm if unearthed in the discovery phase of a lawsuit or investigation.

The consequences of this behavior for historians will, of course, be tragic. The kinds of written records we have relied on for a millennium to reconstruct the crucial events of the past will be either compromised or in many cases nonexistent, leading to what can rightly be called a vanishing history of the American presidency.

Or so we have thought.

The current administration remains a mystery on this point. Its senior ranks are filled with seasoned Washington hands who have lived through much of the litigious history of the modern presidency -- and who thus know firsthand the perils of the written word. Indeed Cheney himself once informed Bob Woodward that he keeps no diary -- and pointed to his head when Woodward asked where the history of the Bush years could be found.

Yet this is also an administration that has operated in an environment fundamentally different from its predecessors. The independent counsel statute expired in June 1999, before the Bush administration took office. And Congress has been docile and thus not inclined to perform the kind of dogged oversight that generates subpoenaphobia.

Moreover, the wartime climate in the post-9/11 era has created a muscular presidency at the head of a powerful security state, which has given this White House, until quite recently, a kind of impervious standing in Washington. The broader operational culture of the Bush team has been one of exceptional discipline and control -- with an extraordinary confidence in its ability to shape the course of modern politics. This is a White House that has, for better and worse, been largely free of the constraints that bound its immediate predecessors.

Is it possible, then, that the current occupants of the White House have felt somewhat immune from the incursions that bedeviled their predecessors, and thus free to record their detailed inner workings? Maybe so. According to a New York Times report, Libby kept notes of a conversation indicating that Cheney sought information about Plame from the CIA and then told Libby about her.

Unfortunately, given the probable delays in accessing presidential records -- delays this White House extended with an executive order in 2001 -- it will be a very long time before we can know with certainty whether today's written record is more expansive, and thus ultimately more illuminating, than others.

But at least for now, presidential historians have been given some hope that the documentary archive may be more revealing than we dared imagine. Which is why our reaction to the news from the leak investigation has been slightly different from that of those shocked by it: Thank goodness, somebody actually wrote it down.

Author's e-mail: rlr2p@virginia.edu

Russell Riley is a research professor in the Presidential Oral History Program of the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs.

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