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The public papers of the president: Low-tech, high impact

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Christine O'Donnell said she was not a witch, Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) cried, and Gov. Jan Brewer (R-Ariz.) paused. These were just some of the highlights from the 2010 political year.

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 26, 2010; 8:21 PM

The nation's bookbinder runs his index finger over a rough cut of goatskin. He bears down gently, hunting for blemishes. The leather, flown from London to the bindery of the Government Printing Office, has no major flaws. It is fit to enshrine the utterances of the president.

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"It's workable," Peter K. James pronounces. He will glue the frontispiece, trim and sew the stacks of pages, attach the endpapers styled in silk moire, round and hollow the spine, fasten the boards and smooth, gold-stamp and polish President Obama's first set of public papers.

"You know you've got a full goat here?" jokes James, whose title is head forwarder at the printing office. His job is assembling and hand-binding some of the government's most important documents and then forwarding them to the finishers. The craft has changed little since the 17th century.

"The Public Papers of the President 2009" will be bound at the White House's request in Duke blue, dyed with the pigment of eggplant skins in a tannery across the Atlantic Ocean. Tradition has blocked a Buy America contract until the government can find an American tannery that dyes with vegetables instead of chemicals.

Sometime next month, two three-pound volumes containing the speeches, communications to Congress, addresses to foreign leaders, proclamations, executive orders and transcripts of other public remarks from Obama's first year in office will be hand-delivered to him. The president with two BlackBerrys through which many drafts of these missives passed will add the volumes to his White House library.

Will he read them? These old-style scrapbooks of officialdom represent a sliver of a presidency that's being rapidly eclipsed by an electronic juggernaut of e-mailed memos, tweets, blog and Facebook posts, YouTube videos and other digital records of the most technology-driven administration yet. Some of those records, including juicy policy decisions made over BlackBerrys, will no doubt be fought over years after the president leaves office.

Old craft in a new age

But in the age of the tweeting president, the hand-bound tradition endures, costing taxpayers $45,000 to $50,000 a volume, with two volumes produced each year. How long this will continue is a decision government archivists are just beginning to ponder. Have the presidential papers become souvenirs and backdrops for presidential addresses in the Roosevelt Room, or are they a still-vital piece of history?

"We've all sort of accepted that they are there," says Anna Nelson, a historian of diplomacy at American University who refers to the hard copies for her research. She believes they still mean something, even if the public papers going back to George H.W. Bush are available online.

"Presidents may never take them off the shelf, but they'll have them," Nelson says. "There are just some things you hold onto, even if they're obsolete."

The first public papers were printed during Herbert Hoover's presidency as an attempt to make the president more accessible (Franklin Roosevelt published his privately). They're published twice a year by the Office of the Federal Register, with each volume covering six months. The president's remarks are checked against tape recordings; signed documents are checked against the originals. Then James and his printing-office staff bind three leather copies of each book. For them, it's 10 days of on-and-off labor - gluing and clamping and waiting for the binding to dry.

The president's words are available online long before they are printed and placed in James's hand to create a touchable piece of history. The photo spread of the First Family, for example, was uploaded to Flickr moments after the White House photographer shot it. There are no surprises here for a public that, before the Internet, had only old television and newspaper clips to remind it what the president had said.

Not exactly bestsellers

The public isn't clamoring to own hard copies of the public papers - the printing office produces just a few hundred clothbound copies for sale each year. Obama's will cost somewhere between $113 and $130 a volume. Another 1,200 sets are distributed to research libraries in the federal depository system, although it it hard to say how often they are used as reference books. The record of John F. Kennedy's first year sold 22,000 copies. But the bestseller of the electronics-age presidency, the papers chronicling the Monica Lewinsky scandal during Bill Clinton's second term, sold just 740.


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