Scandal May Mean the End of White House Diaries
By Linton Weeks
"Heavens, no!" she replied. "It would get subpoenaed."
Increasingly, the threat of subpoena has cast a pall over would-be scribes at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Just as President Nixon's Watergate experience brought an end to Oval Office taping, the Clinton administration's various intrigues may mean the death of the White House diary.
Some staffers have stopped keeping journals. Others no longer take notes at meetings. Some say they still fire off memos to one another, but the missives are more meek, mealy and milquetoasty than they used to be. At every level, from President Clinton on down, White House aides are watching what they say on the phone, thinking twice before hitting the "send" button on e-mail and learning the value of the shredder, because everything, every thing, is subject to scrutiny and potential exposure.
" 'White House diary' has become an oxymoron," says Ann Lewis, White House communications director. The vast and sweeping Starr search "chills your candor and your willingness to express things in writing."
"I don't put anything down in writing," says aide Sidney Blumenthal, who was questioned before a federal grand jury last week about his conversations with reporters. "I keep things in my head."
The specter of subpoena has frozen spontaneity solid, White House aides say, and the thaw may be a long time coming.
Shortly before taking office, Clinton consulted with author and friend Taylor Branch about what sort of documents future presidential historians might need. Branch would not say what he told the president-elect. When asked specifically if Clinton keeps a private diary, Branch would not comment.
"In another time, President Clinton would be a natural diarist," says presidential historian Michael Beschloss. "He has read so much and he understands the history of the presidency."
The absence of contemporaneous notes may change history, or at least challenge historians. While this may be the Information Age, future chroniclers may have less thoughtful, honest, off-the-cuff information from this administration than from any other of the 20th century.
"It's a crime against history," says Blumenthal.
"What historians usually need is as much real-time documentation as possible -- notes on the inner lives of the people in the White House and in the administration," says Beschloss, author of books about John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and other presidents. Researchers hunger, he says, for "what is said behind closed doors, and particularly people's spontaneous reaction to issues and events."
A prime example is the now-famous weekly diary kept by Harold Ickes Sr., President Franklin D. Roosevelt's interior secretary, confidant and sometime host for card games at the Ickes home in Olney. Every Sunday, Ickes dictated his recollections to someone who typed them up and burned the notes in his office fireplace. The result was a 6-million-word portrait of the presidency.
"The best thing in the Ickes diaries," says Beschloss, "was that people learned what Roosevelt was like behind the scenes."
Three volumes of Ickes' recollections were published soon after he died in 1952. Reams more of unpublished entries remain on the shelves of the Library of Congress. "We historians venerate him for having kept that kind of record," Beschloss says, but at the time, many people were incensed because Ickes gave the public glimpses behind the political curtain, much to the surprise and chagrin of some of the subjects who were still in politics.
For Harold Ickes Jr., deputy chief of staff in Clinton's first term, history won't repeat itself. Ickes had planned to take meticulous notes throughout 1996 for an eventual memoir. In addition to his father, he was inspired, he says, by the faithful note-taking of Nixon chief of staff Bob Haldeman. But Ickes scrapped the idea after seeing "the number of subpoenas and breadth of subpoenas."
As it was, Ickes' meticulous files yielded damaging evidence in the Senate investigation of the fund-raising practices of the 1996 Clinton campaign.
Ickes describes himself as an inveterate note taker, moved to write everything down because "it is very hard to remember unless you have a photographic, long-lasting memory. I find that most people don't have good memories." Ickes said he was intrigued by the nuances of meetings: What question did the president ask? Whom did he ask? What were the facial expressions?
Since the publication of the senior Ickes' books, Beschloss says, there has been a steady avalanche of writing about public figures by those who recently served them. And with each one, more layers were peeled from the onion.
In 1963, just two years after President Eisenhower left office, Emmet John Hughes, a Time magazine writer and Eisenhower speechwriter, published his insider's tale, "Ordeal of Power." "There was nothing in it that would be shocking in 1998 terms," Beschloss says.
At the time, though, the public was dismayed that a close adviser would reveal behind-closed-door goings-on. Historians appreciated the book, Beschloss says, because it showed that Eisenhower was not just someone who spent eight years relaxing and golfing.
Most of the recent presidents, including Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George Bush, either wrote or dictated diaries. "To have the president narrating his own administration is something that historians find irreplaceable," Beschloss says.
Some believe the White House diary died with Bush. His dictated comments -- turned over to biographer Herbert Parmet -- were full of candid reflections that historians will plumb for years. During the 1988 campaign, for example, he spoke of his choice of Dan Quayle as a running mate. "It was my decision," he said, "and I blew it." He later explained that he meant he had muffed the way he had made the selection, not that he regretted the selection itself.
Future presidents might not keep such journals -- wouldn't be prudent.
Others say the White House diary died with Joshua Steiner. In 1994 Steiner, then chief of staff to Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, was subpoenaed by a Senate committee and ordered to turn over documents related to Whitewater and the Resolution Trust Corp. He voluntarily turned over a personal diary. Months before Steiner's testimony before that committee, news stories, based on the leaked diary, suggested inconsistencies between some of the entries and a deposition Steiner had given.
In the diary, for instance, Steiner wrote that Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos had called him to urge that Jay Stephens, a former Bush administration federal prosecutor, be fired as the RTC investigator on Whitewater. In his testimony, however, Steiner said that Stephanopoulos had simply called to voice concern over Stephens's appointment and to ask if anything could be done about it.
The Office of Government Ethics ultimately cleared Steiner of any wrongdoing, and he stayed on through the end of Bentsen's tenure. Steiner, now a vice president at Lazard Freres in New York, declined to comment for this story.
Stephanopoulos says he never kept a formal diary while in Clinton's employ and has denied a published report that he hired a memory coach to help him write his memoirs.
Former labor secretary Robert Reich learned the dangers of writing without records. Several of the episodes in his memoir, "Locked in the Cabinet," were called into question by reporter Jonathan Rauch of the online magazine Slate. Lane Kirkland, former president of the AFL-CIO, said Reich misquoted him. So did former House Republican leader Robert Michel.
In Slate, Reich replied that he "captured the mood, the tone, the feel of the conversation, even if I got some of the words wrong."
From his current perch on the faculty at Columbia University, Stephanopoulos says he knows the value of such historical records from the White House. He said he recently taught a class on Johnson "and having the tapes [from the Johnson White House] made all the difference in the world. I wish there would be a permanent taping system in the White House that would be controlled by the National Archives and not subject to the spy-versus-spy mentality we face today."
But under current conditions, the kind of behind-the-scenes notes once scribbled inside the White House aren't as abundant. "High muckety-mucks don't keep notes," Branch says. "It means we won't have very good history. It means that it will be lifeless."
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