DO AMERICANS HAVE the stomach for an unvarnished account of their presidents and their nation? Probably not, as suggested again by the scant public pressure for release of the presidential tapes that now litter the landscape.
There is much public debate, of course, about the propriety of Presidents Roosevelt or Johnson or Kennedy bugging the Oval Office -- but little in the way of demands for these records to be released right now, instead of after five or 10 or 40 more years.
Understandably, those most able to recall the past -- as during the recent centennial observances in honor of FDR's 100th birthday -- often prefer memory anchored firmly in myth. They do not dwell on FDR's discussion of how to use "dirty tricks" against Wendell Willkie during the 1940 presidential campaign.
Had that story stirred serious interest among the public, attention might also have been paid to the way FDR employed J. Edgar Hoover's Federal Bureau of Investigation -- and occasionally military intelligence agents -- to monitor sensitive personal matters as well as his political opponents, especially during the immediate pre-war and war years. In that case, Roosevelt's recording of presidential press conferences would not have been seen as merely an unfortunate but isolated incident.
It was at Roosevelt's explicit bidding, for example, that FBI agents monitored extensively the telephone calls and movements of some of FDR's isolationist critics in 1940, with only the shallowest (if any) national security justification. We know that The Washington Post's harassment under Nixon was anticipated in 1940-41 by the wiretapping and planting of informers in the offices of the isolationist Washington Times-Herald publisher, Eleanor (Cissy) Patterson, and her chief editor, Frank C. Waldrop, both of whom -- along with other FDR administration opponents -- the FBI bugged extensively.
Nor did the young John Kennedy escape Roosevelt's personal notice. Hoover's men, acting with FDR's knowledge and under his instructions, monitored closely the love affair between Kennedy and Inga Arvad, a young reporter on the Times-Herald who was wrongly suspected of Nazi ties.
If revelations about Roosevelt fail to ignite significant public concern for a candid historical record, last week's reports of logs dealing with 600 White House conversations bugged at John Kennedy's direction were also greeted with a notable absence of pressure to speed their release. And again there was little note of the fact that the taped conversations were part of a broader pattern of bugging during the Kennedy administration.
Overall, Attorney General Robert Kennedy authorized such taps in numbers comparable to those of the Nixon administration, and often with as little legitimate purpose. David J. Garrow's book, "The FBI and Martin Luther King," for example, provides meticulous documentation of the degree to which both Kennedys -- the president and the attorney general -- kept close and constant watch on both the personal and public activities of that civil rights leader.
Indeed, the FBI's COINTELPRO files show that responsibility for any abuses committed in the name of national security surveillance during the Kennedy-Johnson-Nixon years must be deposited not at Hoover's doorstep alone but also several blocks down Pennsylvania Avenue, at Number 1600.
If Americans wanted to know what transpired in the taped conversations now sitting in presidential libraries -- if, as defenders of each president argue, these important records should be judged chiefly by their contents -- it should not be terribly difficult to accelerate the release of at least significant portions, if not most, of them.
The Congress would have to provide relatively small funding for the National Archives to proceed promptly in processing the whole range of presidentially taped material, from Roosevelt to Nixon. Only that small percentage of genuinely sensitive files still worth classifying should be exempted.
Has anybody noticed any groundswell of support for this idea? Why not? Do we not want to know what the tapes contain? Do we not want to know our own history? Do we not want to know what our presidents were like as they made decisions affecting all our lives today and our children's tomorrow? Are we so afraid to look our collective selves in the mirror?
I suspect that most Americans are indeed happier not knowing what was said and done in those conversations. The flight from contemporary history -- from a willingness to grapple with the full and often-troubling record of our own century, except through the romanticized prism of fiction or television "docudramas" -- can be seen in every corner of the society. For just one example, Vietnam is barely, if at all, in the memory bank now of those too young to have served there or to have watched our first prime-time war.
The evidence of past national failings provided by often bitterly alienated "revisionist" historians of the recent generation has encouraged a calculated detachment from history itself among many Americans.
During the 1960s, one of Jules Feiffer's cartoons showed a "hard hat" worker -- remember them? -- explaining that his child was learning in school only those facts which indicted the national past by exposing its less admirable underside. "No wonder the kid is confused," I recall the Feiffer character concluding. "They're teaching him some other country's history." As a parent of school-age children whose introduction to American history has reflected an uneasy effort to distill old pieties and new revelations in a single brew, I sympathize with the Feiffer hardhat.
But I also know that we cannot escape ourselves, that we solve nothing through ignorance. I know that the public and its policymakers could profit from careful examination and understanding of materials such as those recorded by President Kennedy.
To take only one of many possible examples, at a time when East-West tensions threaten some unsought confrontation between ourselves and the Soviet Union, the Kennedy conversations with advisers during the Cuban missile crisis and in preparing for the limited test ban treaty negotiations should be of special interest to all of us.
Those fleeing from history today somehow must be made to realize that, in the act of absorbing the full tangled record of our recent national experience, to quote our first covert presidential transcriber, there is nothing to fear but fear itself. We will be stronger for the knowing.