By John Wertman
Sunday, February 26, 2006
At some point in the next few months, President Bush is expected to announce his choice for the location of his presidential library. Once it's open, most of the media attention is likely to focus on the public exhibits, which will no doubt extol the president's compassionate conservatism, his leadership immediately after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and his impressive selections of John Roberts and Sam Alito for the Supreme Court.
More important to history, however, are the documents that the National Archives will store in the Bush library. These records tell the real story of an administration. Some reveal heartfelt empathy and honest division about a hard decision facing a president at a given moment in time; others may prove embarrassing and show nothing but the basest of political motivations. But for better or for worse, these records belong to the American people and should be available so that future generations can learn from the triumphs and failures of our past leaders.
It was chiefly for this reason that Congress passed the Presidential Records Act in 1978. The law was intended to ensure that after a period of no more than 12 years, presidential records, other than those dealing with existing national security matters and a few other exempted categories, would be made available to the public forever. Thus the law serves as the final check on indiscretion in office and the final basis for presidential accountability.
The law's presumption of public access held firm for more than two decades, but in 2001 President Bush used post-Sept. 11 security measures as a reason to issue an executive order that turns the law on its head. Bush's decree allows former presidents and their heirs to bar the release of documents for almost any reason. It flies in the face of congressional intent and forces our nation's leading historians to take legal action if they want to gain access to documents.
The executive order, No. 13233, drew quite a bit of attention when it was first issued. A group led by the watchdog organization Public Citizen challenged the order's legality in federal court, but the case has been plagued by procedural delays and is still pending. A handful of bills were introduced in Congress that would have overturned the order, but none made it farther than committee.
Unfortunately, time has taken its toll on efforts to force the order's repeal, and hardly any public or political attention is being paid to the issue today, even though it represents a wholesale change in the way the federal government preserves and promotes our national public memory. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Fairfax County's Rep. Tom Davis (R), who chair the committees with jurisdiction over presidential records, have been approached numerous times by historians, scholars and public interest groups regarding the order, but they have failed to act. They should look to the commendable example of Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D), who recently released 100,000 pages of records related to the Hurricane Katrina response. Blanco seems willing to face deserved criticism if it will help prevent officials from repeating mistakes the next time we face similar crises.
I was lucky enough to have had a chance a few years ago to ask former president Gerald Ford about the Presidential Records Act and was struck by his answer. "I firmly believe that after X period of time, presidential papers, except for the most highly sensitive documents involving our national security, should be made available to the public," he said, "and the sooner the better." He also told me that the researchers he's talked to at his presidential library have been grateful that most of his documents were made available. Ford's answer is especially telling because of the way in which he took office: He followed what he called the long national nightmare of Watergate into the White House and has a better sense than most of the importance of presidential accountability.
Until the original intent of the law is restored, public access to the records of our former presidents stands in limbo. Congress must act now to correct this injustice or one day the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum may be derided as a hiding place for secrets concerning matters that dogged the administration.
The writer was on President Bill Clinton's White House staff from 1999 to 2001 and is now director of public policy at the Association of American Geographers. He will answer questions from 2 to 3 p.m. tomorrow onhttp://washingtonpost.com.