The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As U.S. archivist retires, Jan. 6 looms as his worst day

David Ferriero watched the right-wing mob pass the National Archives en route to the Capitol

National Archives chief David S. Ferriero served 12 years under three presidents before retiring in April. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

On his office television, David S. Ferriero, the archivist of the United States, had watched outgoing President Donald Trump whip up the right-wing crowd near the White House.

Now he could hear the rioters on Pennsylvania Avenue outside the National Archives building, where the limestone figures “Future” and “Past” stand guard over the Declaration of Independence and other treasured documents.

Ferriero walked to the window. “I watched this angry mob … really angry, angry people,” he recalled. “I thought to myself, ‘If these people realize what’s in this building they’re passing, we’re at risk here,’” he said.

Frightened, he backed away from the window.

It was Jan. 6, 2021, the worst day of his tenure as the keeper of the nation’s collective memory, and “the worst day of my life,” he said before he retired last month. “The absolute worst.”

Ferriero stepped down April 30 after serving 12 years under three presidents during periods of dire political turmoil, social unrest and a global pandemic.

The Archives itself had been caught in a serious lapse in 2020 when a photograph in one of its exhibits was altered, apparently to avoid political offense.

In 2019, a troubled arsonist set a small fire outside one of the entrances.

And earlier this year, the Archives had to retrieve 15 boxes of documents, some of them classified, from Trump’s Florida residence because the material should have been turned over when he left office.

With the Archives suddenly at the center of the news, Ferriero then declared in a statement that the Presidential Records Act, which requires preservation of White House records, is “critical to our democracy” and that “records matter.”

National Archives had to retrieve Trump White House records from Mar-a-Lago

And at the height of the pandemic, Ferriero was often the only person aside from the security staff walking the halls of the massive stone edifice.

“It’s been great,” he said on his final day in the building last month. “You know, mostly.”

Former president George W. Bush had called him the day before to wish him well, he said.

“You put up with a lot of crap,” he said Bush told him.

“You said it,” Ferriero replied.

Ferriero, 76, was nominated by President Barack Obama and confirmed by the Senate in 2009.

He became the 10th head of what is now the National Archives and Records Administration, which includes buildings in Washington and College Park, Md., as well as 13 presidential libraries and 14 regional archives.

In addition to housing the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the Archives holds 13 billion pages of text and 10 million maps, charts and drawings, as well as tens of millions of photographs, films and other records.

In an interview in his office on April 28, he said he decided to retire now, in part, because he is worried about the political future.

“It’s important to me, that this administration replace me,” he said. “I’m concerned about what’s going to happen in 2024. I don’t want it left to … the unknowns of the presidential election.”

He said he hopes President Biden considers diversity when selecting a new archivist. During a recent public symposium broadcast on YouTube, he said he told the White House: “Better not hire another White male. We’ve had 10 White males.”

Ferriero said he has been working for over 50 years.

“I started my library career in 1965” at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he said. “And I haven’t stopped.”

“It’s time for a rest,” he said. “It’s time for something different. It’s time to get my life back, in terms of control.”

“It was not an easy decision,” he said. “I’ve really enjoyed the work, I think that I’ve made a difference here. There’s still so much more that needs to be done. … But it’s time for someone else to do it.”

In 2020, the Archives faced criticism after opening in its headquarters an exhibit with a picture that had been altered to blur out words suggesting criticism of Trump.

The large color photograph, designed to celebrate the centennial of women’s suffrage, showed a massive protest crowd during the Women’s March on Jan. 21, 2017, the day after Trump’s inauguration.

The original photo had been altered to obscure some words on signs held by marchers.

A placard that proclaimed “God Hates Trump” had “Trump” blotted out so that it read “God Hates.” A sign that read “Trump & GOP — Hands Off Women” had the word “Trump” blurred out.

Less than 24 hours after a Washington Post reporter pointed out the alterations, the Archives apologized.

In the interview, Ferriero said he had not ordered the changes. Asked who had, he replied, “we had a thorough investigation.” He declined to go into details. “It was a lesson learned the hard way,” he said.

Regarding the material Trump took to Florida, Ferriero said he was told by the White House Office of Records Management about a group of boxes in the White House residence that should go to the Archives.

“As we were moving materials from the White House just before the inauguration, those boxes hadn’t shown up yet,” he said.

“I can remember watching the Trumps leaving the White House and getting off in the helicopter that day, and someone carrying a white banker box, and saying to myself, ‘What the hell’s in that box?’” he said.

“That began a whole process of trying to determine” whether any records had not been turned over to the Archives, he said.

Asked if he eventually got all those records, he said: “Don’t know. This is still under investigation.”

Ferriero is a native of Beverly, Mass., a seaside town north of Boston. He is a descendant of Italian immigrants on his father’s side and Irish immigrants on his mother’s.

His father, Anthony, was a mechanic and salesman at a Ford dealership, drove a cab and did construction work. His mother, Marie, cleaned hospitals to earn money for Ferriero’s education.

Ferriero served in the Navy during the Vietnam War as a corpsman, specializing in psychiatric care. He ended up triaging the wounded on a hospital ship.

Before coming to Washington, he was director of the research libraries of the New York Public Library system, vice provost for library affairs at Duke University and a librarian at the MIT library.

He said he plans to return to Durham, N.C., where his wife, Gail Zimmermann, a retired executive with North Carolina’s UNC-TV, has remained.

In Washington, he said, he will miss the National Mall most of all. He often would jog or walk there before dawn.

It was “the place where I decompressed, and thought through all the problems,” he said. “It was a psychological refresher for me … a peaceful place.”

He also befriended a resident white squirrel named Snowball. He would feed her peanuts — “in the shell,” he said.