TWO STORIES in the news last week told a remarkable tale of two presidents. One described the restrictions President Carter has put on the way his staff can use (in their memoirs and elsewhere) the documents his administration has generated. The other reported details of a lawsuit in which former president Nixon is seeking monetary damages because of the restrictions placed by the government on his personal use of the papers his administration created.
Mr. Nixon is offended -- understandably, if not legitimately, so -- by the difficulties he has had in getting his hands on his papers and tape recordings. Presumably, he owns them -- all his predecessors not only asserted ownership over such things but actually took them away when they left the White House. Mr. Nixon's papers were seized by the General Services Administration on orders from Congress in 1974, and it still controls them. That action was taken to ensure that the documentary and verbal records of the Watergate affair remained intact.
The former president has spent a good deal of money since then trying to get control over those papers and trying to stop other people from examining them. He may or may not have real claims against the government at this late date, but he certainly is right in believing he has profited less from his papers than he expected to when he took office.
President Carter has a quite different problem. Like Mr. Nixon, he owns the papers he and his staff have generated. Unlike Mr. Nixon, he says he will give them to the government as soon as an arrangement can be negotiated. In the meantime, he wants to keep total control over them and has told his aides that they must sign an agreement giving him a veto over any use they may make of presidential papers before they can take anything other than purely personal material from the White House.
This seemingly harsh directive is in line with what will happen to the papers of future presidents. Under a law passed two years ago, the government will own those documents, and the archivist, working with each president, will decide what happens to them. One provision of that law seems to cover precisely what Mr. Carter has in mind. Future presidents will have the right to restrict access to any documents that contain advice given by others. Mr. Carter is worried, and properly so, that advisers will be less candid if they anticipate that what they say will be in public print within weeks or months after a president's term ends.
In transferring his papers to the archives, Mr. Carter should keep in mind all the other details of that law. He has a chance here to establish a procedure his successors can follow. That would be a small legacy, as such things go, for the president to leave. But it would be one for which historians and others interested in accuracy and authenticity would be grateful. It might even provide a precedent for disposing of the continuing problems of the Nixon papers.