Historian of Presidential Libraries Reflects on SMU, Bush Debate

Many thanks to Professor Benjamin Hufbauer of the University of Louisville for this guest blog. Hufbauer’s book, Presidential Temples: How Memorials and Libraries Shape Public Memory (Kansas, 2006) is the key work on the subject of Presidential Libraries.

A Possible Turning Point for Presidential Libraries

When I was finishing my book on presidential libraries two years ago, I wondered what would happen when the George W. Bush Library was announced and fund-raising for it began. I imagined that there would be some newspaper articles about the Bush II Library, but overall I thought that there would be little questioning of the problematic aspects of this peculiarly American institution.

I was wrong. Even before the final announcement (expected any day now) that SMU will be home to the Bush II Library, there have been dozens of newspaper articles and editorials that have not just mentioned this newest library, but have discussed the history of presidential libraries and, more importantly, addressed the need for reform. And the Bush Library Blog, ably run by Professor Benjamin Johnson, has become a remarkable resource for those (including reporters) who are interested in this issue. I believe the Bush Library Blog has raised the level of discourse on presidential libraries, because reporters can learn a great deal about presidential libraries in a short period of time from this web site, and therefore can write articles with greater depth. In part as a result of the critical media attention the Bush II Library has already generated, The House of Representatives has passed two pieces of legislation, by veto-proof majorities, overturning Executive Order 13233 (which limits access to the records in presidential libraries), and requiring the disclosure of donors to presidential libraries. This is beyond my wildest hopes of two years ago. At times I’m a bit of a pessimist, but I believe we may have reached a turning point in the history of the presidential library.

What’s needed now, in my opinion, is constant vigilance and critical engagement. I found from researching and writing my book that the history of presidential libraries is punctuated by presidents attempting to use these institutions to further their own ends. In other words, most presidents want these institutions to be white-washed shrines to their egos, rather than institutions that truly serve the public and serve history. This is not a partisan issue. It cuts across party lines, and affects the libraries for Democratic as well as Republican presidents.

In fact the first federal presidential library, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, New York, faced some of the issues that we are still facing with the Bush II Library. FDR, political genius that he was, still faced controversy in selling the idea of a presidential library to the public, to Congress, and to historians. One critic said that FDR wanted “a Yankee Pyramid,” and in a sense that was true. An editorial comic from the time shows FDR dressed up as Santa Claus putting a giant present of a presidential library in his own stocking. But ultimately, FDR sold the presidential library-and got the crucial backing of historians-by saying that the complete records of his administration would be available to historians in a timely manner. In secret, however, FDR wanted something different. Roosevelt wanted to be able to select what records historians could see and which documents would be barred forever from their view. Realizing that he might not get to this vast task before his death, he appointed a committee of political allies to do this job for him.

But FDR’s secret plan to censor the Roosevelt Library’s archive was overturned by a federal judge after Roosevelt’s death. The judge correctly ruled that FDR’s public statements promising access to all records-consistent with the requirements of national security and the feelings of living persons-were more important than his contrary private wishes. And so the dream that FDR presented to the public, to Congress, and to historians came to pass. By the 1950s more than 80% of the records in the FDR Library were open to researchers, and today that figure is 99%. The thousands of books and articles that have been written using the archive of the Roosevelt Library, and other presidential libraries, have helped us learn from our history.

But what Roosevelt was unable achieve with his secret plan, President George W. Bush has so far been able to attain with his infamous Executive Order 13233. This order allows presidents, their representatives, and even descendants long after a president’s death to control the records in presidential libraries. Although so far only a small number of records have been blocked from release by this order, the potential for the abuse of power exists and will persist. 13233 is contrary to the letter and spirit of the laws that previously governed presidential libraries, which is why it is so important that Congress act to overturn it. If the order stays in place, the George W. Bush Library will be of limited value to historians.

There are other issues that are also of importance when it comes to presidential libraries. These include the lack of funding for archivists to process the records in presidential libraries (currently the Office of Presidential Libraries estimates it will take up to 100 years to process the records in recent presidential libraries, because of a lack of archivists), the issue of how the museums in presidential libraries usually present an extended campaign commercial in museum form rather than real history, and finally the issue of the partisan Bush Institute, which , in my opinion, should not be associated with SMU in any way because it does not fit with a university’s academic mission.

When it comes to presidential libraries, it is important not to give in to the worst impulses of presidents and their supporters, for then they may try to create a temple of political propaganda that does not serve the public. It is important to struggle with these issues and remain engaged so that presidential libraries can be created that serve their regions and the nation. And this is possible. I believe the best presidential library in the system at this time is the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri. The Truman Library has an excellent museum that presents a thought-provoking history of the 1940s and 1950s, it has an archive noted for its accessibility because of the talents of the wonderful archivists who work there, and it has an innovative educational program called The White House Decision Center where students get to play the roles of historical figures in a recreation of the West Wing. Many talents went into remaking the Truman Library over the last twenty years, but one of the most important was former director Larry Hackman. Hackman wanted to make a presidential library that made people think. Once, at a meeting on presidential libraries at Princeton University, Larry Hackman said to me, almost in a whisper, “I don’t like it when people say ‘Truman’s Library,’ or ‘Reagan’s Library.’ It is The Truman Library or The Reagan Library. These institutions are not owned by these individuals or their families.” Or at least they should not be.

6 Responses to Historian of Presidential Libraries Reflects on SMU, Bush Debate

  1. Here’s what it says in the editorial cartoon (I know parts of the text are so small that it’s a bit hard to read):

    “For Pres. Roosevelt from F.D.R.

    To be enlarged by public subscription and forever maintained at government expense. To be grander than Mount Vernon and Monticello.”

    Technically, everything said in this editorial cartoon is correct. FDR laid out the model of raising funds from private sources for a presidential library (that’s the “enlarged by public subscription” part) and he also insisted, like the new established National Gallery (founded by Andrew Mellon during FDR’s presidency) that it would always be properly maintained by the federal government. And in a sense it was grander than the preserved homes of Washington and Jefferson, because FDR’s very nice home was preserved too–right next to his combined archive, museum, and monument.

  2. Great article. Unfortunately, we’re dealing with a group of men (Administrators and Trustees) who treat reason and logic as obstacles to be overcome.

    There has been no substantive case made demonstrating that the Insitute will be beneficial to SMU. Institute supporters, including faculty, rely on assumption and wishful thinking to support their position. One might assume that a policy institute or think tank would be good for SMU, but the assumption that George Bush can be trusted to provide an institute dedicated to academic freedom and intellectual honesty is wishful thinking.

    On the contrary, there is every reason to believe the Insitute will be a liability and no reason to believe that it will be handled any differently than the Administration has operated during the last six years.

    How anyone can view the last six years as anything but an ill omen for the future is mystifying. There are only two options: to question his motives or his judgment.

  3. Farinata X says:

    Journalist Rick Perlstein has written extensively on the phenomenon of well-funded rightwing belief tanks that associate themselves with universities, then parasitically draw on those universities’ credibility in support of their own programs.

    “In 2005 I spoke as the token liberal at a 2005 conference “The Conservative Movement: Its Past, Present, and Future” at the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at “Princeton University.” I put “Princeton University” in quotes because the Madison center is in fact a humanities-and-social sciences version of the “financially independent” right-wing-funded campus front groups that allow conservatives to claim to speak with the authority of our great universities, even as these groups need not adhere to the very personnel standards that make these universities great. . . .The Madison Institute, investigator Max Blumenthal has established to what should be Princeton’s shame, is funded by “cultlike Catholic groups and right-wing foundations to support gatherings of movement activists, fellowships for ideologically correct visiting professors and a cadre of conservative students.” It is, in fact, an institutional embodiment of the soul of conservative politics: crafty false-front deceptions.”

    Perlstein writes for the Campaign for America’s Future here:


  4. Maarja Krusten says:

    Thank you for the interesting and useful summary, Ben. And a typically lengthy rumination from me in reply, as I have some time on Sunday.

    Statutes, regulations and other implementing instruments appear on the surface to describe an orderly process for opening Presidential records. In general terms, the system appears to be set up so that archivists at a Presidential Library do their review of records to see what requires restriction and what can be released, a President has a chance to weigh in, and the Archives opens items to which the President has voiced no objections to release. The Archives reports to the public that the President did or did not object to archival disclosures.

    All of this is predicated on all the parties using the regulatory process and formal objections being filed and accepted. I actually understand and do not object to a President being able to review, or have his representative review, what the National Archives proposes to release at his Presidential Library. Unlike the rest of us, as a public figure, he is placed under intense scrutiny by historians as soon as he leaves office, actually before. Of course he has an interest in what is released.

    But what if a President bypasses the formal process? What if the Archives accepts that? As a court case revealed, my experiences with the Nixon tapes showed that despite the approval by Congress of a regulatory process with public notice, a former President could submit input on deletions, NARA might delete items, and the public would have no knowledge that the former President provided input into what was removed from historical records.

    Consider (1) what a newspaper reported about the opening of Watergate Special Prosecution Force tapes by the National Archives’ Nixon Project in 1991 and (2) what historian Stanley Kutler’s uncovered during the discovery process in a lawsuit filed against the National Archives.

    Sy Hersh wrote about some of this in the New Yorker in December 1992, including the fact that, according to my testimony and that of a couple of other archivists, my former supervisor was removed from her position soon after we pleaded with managers to follow a regulatory process. Although we lost the fight, she was a good boss to stand up alongside us in a very scary situation and to argue with us for regulatory compliance.

    1. The New York Times reported reassuringly on June 5, 1991 of the opening of Watergate tapes that

    “Mr. Nixon did not contest the release of the latest transcripts, [the Archives’ spokeswoman said]. Mr. Nixon’s lawyer has previously said his client would not contest the release of transcripts relating to the Watergate affair.”

    2. A court pleading (Civ. A. 92-662-NHJ, Plaintiffs’ Opposition to Intervenors’ Motion for Partial Summary Judgment, filed August 31, 1994) by Public Citizen, representing Stanley Kutler, tells a different story. This is based in part on sworn deposition testimony by a number of NARA officials and staff — you’ll see my name among them –as well as interrogatories submitted to Nixon (who was an Intervenor in the lawsuit). I have deleted the name of one archivist. Compare this section with the court pleading with the earlier account in the NYT:

    “After Mr. Nixon failed to convince the Archives to delay opening the tapes in accordance with his proposals, he embarked on a new strategy for delaying their release.

    Mr. Nixon had his agents review the processed tapes to identify particular tape segments that he did not want to be released. Then, rather than filing formal objections in accordance with the Archives’ regulations, which would be a matter of public record, Mr. Nixon brought 70 items from the tapes subpoenaed by the Watergate Special Prosecution Force (and vetted by Judge Sirica for privacy and other reasons) to the attention of senior Archives’ staff. Lyons Dep.at 30-34, 77; Nixon Resp. to Interrog. No. 12. ”

    Dr. Kutler’s lawyers noted of the archivists that

    “The staff objected to making the deletions because they believed that at least some of the items did not warrant restriction and because it would be improper under standard archival procedures to designate the deletions as based on archivists’ determinations, when they, in fact, resulted from Mr. Nixon’s objections. [Krusten Dep.] at 83, 86-91, 95-97, 197-200, 202, 204-06, 209-10, 247-48, 250; [Archivist’s name deleted] Dep. at 92-105.

    Several archivists were so upset by the direction to delete the 70 items that they sought work elsewhere, at least in part for that reason, and one archivist was demoted in what was viewed by others to be retaliation for her disagreement with the direction. Krusten Dep. at 101-05, 115-16; [Archivist’s name deleted] Dep. at 106-07; Graboske Dep. at 204.”

    Kutler’s attorneys noted in an earlier pleading (Memorandum in Support of Plaintiffs’ Motion to Compel, filed July 19, 1993) that “Because the public scrutinized the Archives’ processing of the Nixon tapes closely, the archivists wanted to be meticulous in identifying the source of the redactions. Krusten Dep. at 89, 92-100, 246.”

    Keep in mind, my side lost the argument to inform the public that we had received input from Nixon. As I testified, we, and the supervisory archivist for whom we worked, wanted senior managers to submit the list of 70 items receied from Nixon’s agent to the National Archives’ Presidential Materials Review Board as we believed 36 CFR §1275 required. We failed in our pleas. The items received from Nixon’s representative were not submitted to the Review Board but some cuts were made to the tapes.

    This sort of thing is very hard to counter or even to discuss. But it is not hard to figure out why it is so hard to release Presidential records. Fear. And I’m actually talking about fear felt by former Presidents. It is awfully hard to get to the bottom of any of this because no former President ever will admit that there is a huge fear factor at play when it comes to archival disclosures – he can’t, our culture doesn’t permit it. I think that fear of what is in their records and how people will interpret them is there for all of them (in all honesty, wouldn’t it be there for most of us, too), regardless of how they governed. Some officials face that fear better than others.

    Presidents at the same time can be overly sheltered but also very scarred by political fire. It’s bound to affect how they come to view historical scrutiny. The average American worker sits down alone with his boss for an annual performance review. He faces his boss alone, he doesn’t send out political attack dogs or spin experts or lawyers to explain away or shift blame for everything he does. Joe Sixpack — whose records of commonplace workaday activities naturally are safe from scrutiny, because they don’t affect the course of the nation — actually may be better equipped psychologically to face questions about his performance than many former Presidents.

    Of course, at the highest levels, not every issue is black and white and easy to handle. How readily does the public accept that this might be the case? Unbeknownst to contemporary observers, some Presidents struggle mightily with issues, even agonize over them, as LBJ’s released tapes revealed in his Vietnam War conversations. For me, those tapes affect how I now look back at the Johnson administration.

    As I’ve noted here earlier, there is an inherent conflict between the “end justifies the means” ethos of campaigning and the need to appear to govern honorably once in office. If I had to guess, I would say for many Presidents of both parties, that tension may be so great, and perhaps impossible to resolve satisfactorily, they may end up thinking, “No one would understand why we did what we did. We gotta hide that stuff from view.” Does that mean they are hiding “bad” things? Maybe yes sometimes, maybe no at other times. Depends on the people and how the handled those tensions.

    Some officials sijmply believe in greater transparency than others (President Ford believed the releasable portions of his records at his Presidential Library should be opened as early as possible). But for the Presidents who try to limit disclosures, are they looking at historians, or instead at gotcha journalists or political opponents? Hard to say. Actually, I believe good historians might understand and would be capable of writing about a President – any President — in a nuanced way. The more I learned about Nixon, the better I came to understand him. Having voted for him, obviously I wish he would have done some things very differently than he did — not handed his enemies the sword, as he himself once said in an interview — but I never demonize him. Actually, I don’t demonize anyone, it’s just not my way.

    All in all, the release of Presidential records is a potentially volatile situation and the archivists often are caught in the crossfire. They stand there alone for the most part. Occasionally a few glimpses of that crossfire appear through the discovery process during litigation, as happened with the Kutler Nixon tapes lawsuit. But litigation is a harsh process and not an easy way to gain information. Remember, the Department of Justice speaks for the National Archives in court. For a number of reasons, even outside of litigation, the National Archives lacks the means to apply much transparency to these issues. That’s just the way it is. At any rate, I hope no archivist in the future goes through some of what my colleagues and I faced in trying to open for public research Nixon’s tapes.

    Submitted Sunday evening at 9:44 pm Eastern time

  5. Hi Maarja,

    Last night I wrote a reply to your post, but somehow it vanished.

    Anyway, I think your essay is fascinating. Thanks very much for writing it.

    I was particularly struck by this passage:

    “But it is not hard to figure out why it is so hard to release Presidential records. Fear. And I’m actually talking about fear felt by former Presidents. It is awfully hard to get to the bottom of any of this because no former President ever will admit that there is a huge fear factor at play when it comes to archival disclosures – he can’t, our culture doesn’t permit it.”

    In my opinion, that fear has been expressed through 13233.

    Even if it may hurt the feelings and historical reputations of presidents, I think the historical records should be available as soon as possible. Warts and all some presidents come out looking pretty good even with the whole record released, but others don’t do as well.

    But we need access so that we can learn from out history. That’s the tragedy of 13233 and of the lack of funding for archivists. 20 years after the end of FDR’s presidency the vast majority of the records in the Roosevelt Library were open. We’re now coming up on two decades since Reagan left office, but only a relatively small percentage of the records are open. We have learned from presidential records about the complex situations that created the Vietnam War and Watergate. We need to have access to the records relating to more recent problems so that we can potentially learn from out history.

    Thanks again for your excellent post.

    Best, Ben

  6. Jim Hudson says:

    Why have a Presidential Library when you’ve hidden any documents you please all the way back to Reagan ? Wasn’t that one of George W. Bush’s first actions in his presidency ? I always assumed he did it to defer any accountability of his father for Iran-Contra.

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