Historian of Presidential Libraries Reflects on SMU, Bush Debate

May 4, 2007

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.

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RNC Email Scandal, Wide Dissemination of the Debate as Campus Awaits Decision

April 14, 2007

Nothing too dramatic has happened on campus recently, and my sense is that all of the on-campus debate about this has played out — see Steve Sverdlik’s report on the Faculty Senate meeting this week. But there are a few developments of note: The author of the Faculty Senate resolution expressing thanks to those who participated in the on-campus debate has sent me her original resolution (which was heavily amended and then failed). Click here to see it — it’s a nice summary of the ebb and flow of discussion on campus. Off-campus, newspapers in the UK, South Africa, and Australia have picked up the story of the debate, running stories very similar to the recent piece in the Chicago Tribune (so similar that they ought to have given the Trib’s reporter credit). I assume that this is because the tie to the overall politics and reputation of the Bush administration is of interest, as well as the fact that as fellow former British colonies these countries have substantial Methodist churches. Third, the reverberations of the debate within the Methodist Church continue, with a frontal attack of the Institute for Religion and Democracy’s Mark Tooley launching a vehement attack on Bush Institute foe Susanne Johnson on David Horowitz’s online journal.

The controversy over the use of non-government emails by White House staffers, including Karl Rove (who has been heavily involved in the formulation of the Bush complex) has been a leading news story all week. Below I’ve put in some excerpts from and links to some of the more thoughtful coverage, which explicitly links the email scandal to the Presidential Records Act and the question of historical documentation.

Presidential Records Evasion
The Progress Report
April 13, 2007

The Presidential Records Act (PRA) — 44 U.S.C. section 2203 — reads, “Through the implementation of records management controls and other necessary actions, the President shall take all such steps as may be necessary to assure” that the activities of the White House “are adequately documented.” Passed in 1978 by Congress to counteract Richard Nixon’s attempts to seal and destroy some of his papers, the PRA was intended to make Executive Branch leaders accountable by ensuring eventual public access to White House decision-making. In recent weeks, through the congressional investigation into the firing of eight U.S. attorneys, more evidence has come to light suggesting that senior White House officials have been using political e-mail accounts provided by the Republican National Committee (RNC), apparently (among other reasons) in an effort to evade the PRA.

Mail Saga Gets Fishier
Dan Froomkin
The Washington Post
April 13, 2007

The saga of the missing White House e-mails took a turn from the deeply suspicious to the deeply, darkly suspicious yesterday as Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman disclosed the bizarre response by the Republican National Committee to early indications that consequential White House e-mails — particularly to and from Karl Rove — were being deleted.

From 2001 to 2004, the RNC’s highly unusual “document retention” policy was to intentionally destroy all e-mails that were more than 30 days old. In the summer of 2004, due to “unspecified legal inquiries,” the RNC changed its policy by allowing — but not mandating — the indefinite retention of e-mails sent and received by White House staffers on their RNC accounts. That was just around the time special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald’s investigation of White House involvement in the leak of CIA agent Valerie Plame’s identity was kicking into high gear.


Chairman Waxman Asks Government Agencies to Preserve E-mails from RNC Accounts

April 12, 2007

Waxman Asks Government Agencies to Preserve E-mails from RNC Accounts
April 12, 2007

Following briefings from the White House and Republican National Committee that revealed an extensive volume of e-mails regarding official government business may have been destroyed by the RNC, Chairman Waxman directs government agencies to preserve e-mails received from or sent to non-governmental e-mail accounts used by White House staffers. The Committee also requests that government agencies provide an inventory of all e-mails involving these accounts.

The briefing received by the Committee raises serious concerns about the White House compliance with the Presidential Records Act, which requires that the President “take all such steps as may be necessary to assure that the activities, deliberations, decisions, and policies that reflect the performance of his constitutional, statutory, or other official or ceremonial duties are adequately documented and that such records are maintained as Presidential records.”

See the links to the letters to various administration officials, including Attorney General Alberto Gonzales; Secretary of of State, Condaleeza Rice; Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, and GSA Administrator, Lurita Doan, here.


Congressional investigators probe why White House aides used GOP-sponsored e-mail accounts

April 11, 2007

Congressional investigators probe why White House aides used GOP-sponsored e-mail accounts
Jennifer Loven
Associated Press
April 11, 2007

WASHINGTON –The White House said Wednesday it had mishandled Republican Party-sponsored e-mail accounts used by nearly two dozen presidential aides, resulting in the loss of an undetermined number of e-mails concerning official White House business.

Congressional investigators looking into the administration’s firing of eight federal prosecutors already had the nongovernmental e-mail accounts in their sights because some White House aides used them to help plan the U.S. attorneys’ ouster. Democrats were questioning whether the use of the GOP-provided e-mail accounts was proof that the firings were political.

Democrats also have been asking if White House officials are purposely conducting sensitive official presidential business via nongovernmental accounts to get around a law requiring preservation — and eventual disclosure — of presidential records. The announcement of the lost e-mails — a rare admission of error from the Bush White House at a delicate time for the administration’s relations with Democratically controlled Capitol Hill — gave new fodder for inquiry on this front.

Continued here.


From NPR, an interview with a government watchdog and a historian on the WH e-mails

April 4, 2007

The Email Trail
NPR
March 30, 2007

Why no emails from Alberto Gonzales in the prosecutor purge document dumps? He apparently doesn’t use email. Ditto for other Cabinet members. Now some are questioning whether Bush staffers avoid email altogether, or just their official accounts. Government watchdog Melanie Sloan says there‚Äôs illegal obfuscation at work. And historian Anna Nelson explains the law that made presidential communications part of the public record.

Read the transcript of the interview, here, or listen to it, here.


Waxman Requests RNC Emails

April 4, 2007

Waxman Requests RNC Emails
Paul Kiel
TPMmuckraker.com
April 4, 2007

The House’s chief sleuth, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA), continues to press the administration and the Republican National Committee.

Today, in a letter to the RNC’s chairman, he asked for emails “that relate to the use of federal agencies and federal resources for partisan political purposes.”

It’s just the latest move in Waxman’s investigation into the use of RNC email addresses by White House personnel, a practice that some charge violates the Presidential Records Act. Last week, Waxman asked the RNC not to destroy any such emails and asked White House counsel Fred Fielding what the administration’s email policies were.

Continued here.


AU students attempt citizens’ arrest of Rove for violating the Presidential Records Act

April 4, 2007

Students Lie in Front of Car, Delay Rove After Speech
Martin Weil and Peter Baker
The Washington Post
April 4, 2007

Heckling protesters briefly delayed the car carrying top White House aide Karl Rove last night as he left the American University campus, where he had just given a speech. No arrests or injuries were reported after Rove’s invitation-only talk.

About 20 students lay in front of the car as it prepared to leave, a witness said.

Continued here.

Updated April 8, 2007, to add a link via Cliff Schecter to this short video of the demonstration by American University History PhD student Sarah Thelen.