News Hour Examines Presidential Libraries

Interesting piece Monday night on PBS’ News Hour examining Presidential libraries, featuring a brief introductory piece on libraries in general, with passing mention that there has been some controversy at SMU. Presidential scholar Michael Beschloss was joined by the director of the Clinton Library and a former director of several libraries. (I’ll post a link once PBS has the program up on its website). [Transcript now posted here].

The discussion struck me as positive to the point of banality– yes, how wonderful that we have presidential libraries. The documents would still be accessible to the public without the library system, as part of the National Archives and Records Administration’s general collections. Why no discussion of the odd mingling of the private political and family interest of the President and his circles with the national interest in having access to documents generated while doing the people’s business? No mention was made of Executive Order 13233, which has attracted the attention of the New York Times, the Dallas Morning News, library scholar Benjamin Hufbauer, and the historians at SMU, among others.

Brief mention was made of the issue of making museums into “shrines,” and all agreed that it was a mistake to present skewed exhibits. But nobody pointed out that the Nixon library homepage still features a lovely piece by Ann Coulter called “The Democratic Party: A Vast Sleeper Cell,” in which she dismisses Watergate as an invention of America-hating Democrats emboldened by Communist gains in southeast Asia and concludes that “The passing of Gerald Ford should remind Americans that Democrats are always lying in wait, ready to force a humiliating defeat on America.” Coulter is entitled to stew in her own juices, but why should a Presidential museum help her to spew her bile upon the world? Is there any sense in which this is serious scholarship or a thoughtul contribution to a discussion of public issues? (In fairness, the Clinton museum also skews history, presenting the Lewinsky scandal as a mere example of a right-wing conspiracy. But even those highly optimistic about the presidential library system acknowledge that they tend to be skewed in their first few years).

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4 Responses to News Hour Examines Presidential Libraries

  1. HEM says:

    Honestly, I find PBS and NPR mostly banality, in the last few years.

  2. Maarja Krusten says:

    It certainly is challenging to find on TV any discussion of Presidential Libraries that does not come across as shallow. A news show, whether on broadcast TV, cable, or PBS, has little time to devote to the topic and I don’t have a sense that the researchers who prepare talking points for anchors look deeply enough into most of the issues. That leaves it up to the guests and TV producers seem to pick them from a very small pool. Michael Bescloss is, of course, a frequent guest on the News Hour.

    Although Beschloss has spoken and written about access to records, it has been from a different angle than any of those discussed here in this forum. In a presentation at the LBJ Library, Beschloss said back in 1997 that the fear of disclosure may mean that governmental activities will not be documented nearly as completely as they were earlier in the 20th century. Speaking of Presidential tape recordings, Beschloss then said, “the demand for openness now made of presidential records – even while a president is in office – and the legal problems they can cause has ensured few such records are made at all.” (Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, “Author says presidential tapings not likely to be repeated,” 10/21/97 at http://www.lubbockonline.com/news/102297/ld0600.htm )

    In what I’ve seen of his writing, Beschloss focuses on the so-called “chilling effect” of early disclosure. He expanded on the theme in an article published in 2002 in Presidential Studies Quarterly, writing: “People in Washington are more public relations savvy than in earlier times and, thus, more adept at drafting memos and other records that conceal their motives and can fool the historian.”

    He concluded, “The result of all of this is that a historian of the years of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, or their successors may not have the kind of sources needed to understand who did what to whom and why as well as a scholar might for, say, the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt. The result of this could be that historical scholarship on future presidents may become, of necessity, more speculative.”

    But you’re right, although Beschloss appears regularly on the News Hour, access to records is not an issue he seems to bring up, in any way, during his TV appearances. Even to explain why he may feel early disclosure might have a chilling effect. He spends his professional capital on TV in other ways.

    Admittedly, it would be challenging to discuss the intricacies of research before a general audience on TV. Give too boring or arcane a presentation and the producers won’t invite you back again. Part of the problem lies in the lack of framework for discussing the issues. Viewers lack context because they don’t deal with these issues themselves. Many of the people watching TV may think that the history of a President’s tenure is captured adequately in “as told to” books by Bob Woodward. They may not think much, if at all, about what it takes to weave a sustainable conclusory narrative as an historian.

    In extreme cases, some viewers among the TV audience actually may look at Presidential records as partisans and may even think that is is ok to close-hold records about the guy they vote for and to dump for everyone to see the maximum amount of information about the guy they oppose. They may get irritated and tune you out if you discuss access to records in an objective fashion. But for the National Archives, which has an objective mission, under law, what applies to a President of one party also applies to a President of the other party.

    Of course, the fact that Presidential records are administered under three different statutes makes it all the more challenging to discuss them in neat little sound bites. Given what I’ve dealt with in working with the Nixon records, I have to say I’ve never seen an historian on TV discuss the intricacies of public access in a satisfactory manner. Part of the problem lies in the fact that print and TV news outlets have their “go to” scholars (Michael Beschloss, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Robert Dallek) and rarely go beyond a set circle of people for comment. If the person they turn to is not interested in discussing certain issues, the public is unlikely to hear them.

    Unfortunately, I also don’t think historians as a profession are particuarly effective in thinking strategically about how to educate the public so they can assess issues as they pop up in the news. And of course, they are not monolithic in their views. Some scholars support a system of Presidential Libraries while others believe such records should be housed in a central repository at the National Archives. But even the pros and cons of these two approaches rarely are discussed on TV or in the blogosphere.

    Someone once told me that most scholars focus on what they need for their own research needs and pay little attention to other issues. I don’t know if that is true but I do think the blogosphere reflects very, very little sense of community among historians. (How many people from other academic blogs have wandered over here to comment on your interesting blog?)

    Over the years, I’ve seen much less debate about Presidential records on blogs written by academics, even those who write about governmental history, than the issues seem to warrant. You almost never see anyone write about even the least contentious issues, such as the challenges of electronic record keeping. (http://www.cnn.com/TECH/9712/26/erasing.history.ap/ )

    Maybe the pool of people who care about the underpinning of public history narratives simply is much smaller than one would think. A lot of people pop off on their blogs about current events but fall silent, or even seem to shrug, when it is time to assess how one might write objectively and credibly from an historical perspective — down the road — about a President.

    I didn’t see the PBS show last night and have not seen a transcript. You mentioned that the director of the Clinton Library was a guest. That sounds as if it was David Alsobrook. I worked with him very early in my career at the National Archives. From what I’ve heard, he has a good reputation at NARA. Here is some information about his background
    http://www.archives.gov/press/press-releases/2004/nr04-53.html

    Maarja Krusten
    submitted from home before going to work on personal time at 8:00 am eastern time

  3. HEM says:

    I did not see the program, either, but an hour of television does not have to be shallow and banal. I am certain Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now would hold a substantive discussion that would include genuine experts on the subject, such as you and Dr. Hufbauer.

    I have also been somewhat puzzled that few other academics have appeared interested in this topic; however, it is not so easy to find this blog, either, since a simple Google query such as “bush library” will not locate it.

  4. Maarja Krusten says:

    Here is a link to the News Hour’s 2/10/07 segment on Presidential Libraries:

    http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/white_house/jan-june07/library_02-19.html

    In my view, much of the superficial quality of the segment can be traced to the interviewer (Ray Suarez). Some of the responses, such as those by David Alsobrook, actually are quite good, as when he says of exhibits at the Libraries, “And I think, during the museum-planning process, when you’re working on the permanent museum gallery, I think you have to have some very straightforward talks with all the other folks who are involved at that stage of the process. And in some cases, that will also mean the former president, as well. And you just have to speak truth to them.” But Suarez leaves unasked any potential follow up questions that might have led to more in-depth examination of issues. It almost appears as if he was not listening to any of the responses but simply was following a previously written script.. So, largely a missed opportunity. But I actually thought Dr. Alsobrook did well.

    As for the seeming lack of interest by academics in issues related to Presidential Libraries, I’ve been pondering that for some time. Over the years, professional associations have taken positions on some of the issues related to access to Presidential records. Individual academics and even Presidential historians mostly have kept silent in recent years. The issues actually are quite complicated and there are competing dynamics. And the question of when to release records and how to avoid a potential chilling effect also is interesting. I myself have not resolved in my own mind all the issues. But I don’t know why there has been so little discussion of these matters in the blogosphere. As I read academic blogs (other than this one), I find myself simply guessing what the silence means.

    Many scholars do their research not in government archives but in private manuscript collections. In many such cases, the family of a notable who worked not for the government but in the private sector controls his or her papers after death. (Think Martin Luther King, Jr., for example.) There may be some scholars who accept that even with government records that fall under statutory control, a President and his associates or family can decide what historians can and cannot see. Perhaps they have not looked closely at the legislative intent of the records statutes or thought through all the varying perspectives.

    I, on the other, have followed closely the transition from private to public control of Presidential records. I’m very interested in the competing dynamics. Of course, I came into the employ of the National Archives in the immediate post-Watergate time period, joining its Office of Presidential Libraries in December 1976. At that time, the issue of public access to Presidential records was much in the news. During hearings on the Nixon records act’s regulations in 1975, Rep. John Brademas expressed “profound skepticism” that materials might not be withheld improperly under the privacy restriction. And Rep. Abner J. Mikva, who later became a judge, argued of the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act in 1975 that

    “the deletion of material in order to avoid personal embarrassment runs counter to Congressional intent . . . . Congress listed several reasons that would justify restricting public access and disclosure . . . . Protection from embarrassment is not cited as an appropriate rationale for restriction of the public’s right to know. I would hope that the . . . regulations carefully distinguish between this limited right to privacy and the right of the people to know the workings and misworkings of their government.”

    Yet the desire not to be embarrassed is a human and visceral reaction for creators of records. No one wants to be blindsided or sandbagged by what he or she once said or wrote.

    Clearly, even for archivists, there are difficult balancing tests to apply. As Professor Norman Graebner noted in 1975, “We have two extremes, perfect or total accessibility and absolute privacy, and these two are antagonistic positions at the end of a long spectrum and the task of any archivist is to find that point along the spectrum where one finds that happy medium between what I would call legitimate accessibility and the protection of third parties and privacy. . . . to find that point on the spectrum is a very difficult task.”

    One would think that how government archivists work, the environment that surrounds them, and the competing views of stakeholders would be of interest to scholars. Unfortunately, from what I’ve seen on some H-Net forums, researchers often simply ask, “Where’s my stuff?” They rarely take the time to look at what is involved in releasing information and how best to do it.

    Submitted from home on personal time at 7:44 am eastern time

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