General Services Administrator Rowland G. Freeman III, the former Navy admiral who is pressing ahead with his plan to reorganize the National Archives, has been attacked by his foes on a new flank: the White House.
Until recently most of the controversy was confined to the chandeliered Archives Reception Room at the Archives on Pennsylvania Avenue, or Freeman's ornately paneled conference room at GSA headquarters across town.
Now, in an effort to get Freeman's boss, President Carter, to intervene, historian John Hope Franklin, head of the 15,000-member American Historical Association, and the two most recent chief archivists have taken their grievances to domestic policy chief Stuart Eizenstat's office.
The academicians and scholars are upset by Freeman's announced intention of shipping hundreds of thousands of cubic feet of historical records from the overstuffed Archives headquarters in the Federal Triangle to roomier regional centers throughout the country.
The admiral says the shift will make better use of expensive storage space and also "bring history to the people."
But his critics say Freeman's plan, if carried out, will make archival research much more difficult and, in some cases, render it impossible.
"It's the craziest thing I've heard of," says historian Franklin. "People ask me, 'What the hell is going on at the National Archives?'"
According to one participant, the delegation to the White House told Eizenstat aide Al Stern that Freeman was bypassing professional opinion in making decisions about the Archives. The group focused its criticism on the shifting of records as proposed by Freeman, the participant said.
Stern's only reaction, according to the source, was to ask for more information about the controversy, and it was subsequently sent to him.
Last week a group of local historians and archivists formed an Emergency Committee to Preserve the National Archives. The new group's letterhead already includes the names of well-known scholars, including William Appleman, new president of the 8,000-member Organization of American Historians, and Herbert Gutman, one of the leading experts on the slave experience in the South.
In yet another example of the anti-freeman offensive, James B. Rhoads, who resigned as archivist last summer, has gone public with a frontal attack on his former boss.
"I am convinced that there is a real very danger that in the course of a few months he [Freeman] may undo the work of three generations of professional archivists who have built possibly the finest national archives in the world," Rhoads said in a recent talk to archivists and historians.
The focus of the controversy now has shifted to the imminent selection of a successor to Rhoads.
Freeman, echoing criticisms made by the General Accounting Office and a House subcommittee, has claimed that the Archives, which is responsible for more than 2 billion documents ranging from the Declaration of Independence to canceled Treasury checks, is paralyzed by mismanagement an drefuses to adopt current, more efficient techniques of record keeping.
But because Freeman stresses management talent as his No. 1 prerequisite in a new archivist, his critics fear he will choose someone who will treat the Archives less as a national cultural institution than as a balky bureaucracy in need of modernizing.
At an all-day session today in Freeman's conference room, an advisory selection committee will hold its last session before sending names of qualified candidates on to a GSA panel, which will make the final recommendations to Freeman.
But there are fears among committee members that the selection process is not working. "I see decisions being made [by Freeman] in a way that will drive off good candidates," said one member . . . Frankly we have been disappointed in the number and quality of candidates."