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

By Lisa Rein
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.

"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.

Presidential historian Michael Beschloss has the collection in his library. But he admits to consulting the electronic versions online.

"I'd be very sad if they stopped publishing" the print editions, he says. "But given the [budget] deficit of this country, I can see a day, sadly, when they are no longer important."

For government archivists, the question is whether the goal of creating an enduring public record of the presidency can be carried out in cyberspace. "The printed series is used extensively by numerous segments of our society," says Ray Mosley, director of the Federal Register, which is published by the National Archives. "For many users, it is the starting point for researching and analyzing the complete record of the president."

But can the record be just as valuable if it can't be touched? Mosley pauses. "It wouldn't surprise me at all if in a few years we did the offering only as an electronic, online edition."

For now the tradition continues, a vestige of the days when federal documents were printed using linotype on the bindery floor of the printing office headquarters at 732 North Capitol St. and the Congressional Record was clamped and trimmed on machines manufactured 100 years ago by Seybold Machine Co. in Dayton, Ohio. (The Seybold is still used in hand-binding.)

Trained to tradition

James, 65, has bound the papers of three presidents. He traveled to the White House to present George W. Bush's first set in the Oval Office, the highlight of a career that began as an apprentice in his native London at 15. James made sure the dimensions of each green volume matched those of the red ones of President H.W Bush to the millimeter. "I assumed father and son would want to keep them side-by-side," he says.

If he's asked to deliver the new volumes to the 44th president, "it would be just as thrilling as it was the first time," says James, a tanner's son who wears a diamond earring and greets colleagues with, "Hello, love!"

His own reverence for tradition began at the London College of Printing and Graphic Arts, where he learned his craft in the 1960s. He went on to train in some of the city's famous print shops. He arrived in Washington 30 years ago, became a U.S. citizen, and in 2000 was well into a career at local binderies when a forwarding job opened at the Government Printing Office. In three years he was promoted to printing chief, supervising a staff of a dozen for $37.86 an hour. He commutes from Lorton, arriving to open the bindery at 7:30 a.m.

The binding process may be painstaking, but the end product is surprisingly spartan. The pages of Obama's papers are neither marbled, embossed nor gilded with gold-stamped ornaments, aside from the title and the president's name on the lower right-hand corner of the cover. James will not turn to the rollers and fillets in the cupboard of adornments reserved for congressional and agency work. "It's a very simple binding, really," he says.

Three books are bound in leather so the archives staff can choose the best for the president. The others will be held in reserve in case something happens to Obama's copy.

Reviving a failing economy was at the top of Obama's agenda during the first half of 2009. He appeared on Jay Leno's show 59 days in and joked about the new dog he gave his daughters, which Leno dubbed a Portuguese water head. The president flew to Florida and held a Q and A with the crew of the space shuttle Discovery. His administration bailed out the auto industry. He laid out a timetable for withdrawing from Iraq and feted retiring Supreme Court Justice David Souter. He nominated Sonia Sotomayor to fill Souter's spot. And Ted Kennedy was alive. "It's thrilling to see you here, Teddy," Obama told the senator, suffering from a brain tumor, at a White House forum on health care on March 5. It's all there, chronologically, in Franklin typeface.

Obama's first six months cover 1,017 pages. That's 201 pages longer than George W. Bush's first volume and 274 shorter than Bill Clinton's.

No tweets allowed

The public papers of this tech-driven president have not adapted to the biggest changes in communication of the modern presidency. The records of the tweeting, blogging, Facebook-posting, YouTube-videoing Obama White House are being archived on White House servers. But they didn't make the cut for the official public papers.

Obama's communications through social media don't meet the editorial standards of the National Archives. Obama may not write his speeches and proclamations, but he delivers and signs them, making them his official utterances. The tweeting, on the other hand, is done by a White House staffer.

"We want to be sure they're coming from the president and not from some staff member," Mosley says. "And that they're focused on policy and substantive decisions the president is making, so they're a complete record as a starting point for history."

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