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.

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
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’s 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
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.

More on the White House RNC e-mails

March 30, 2007

Follow the e-mails
Sidney Blumenthal
March 29, 2007

March 29, 2007 | The rise and fall of the Bush presidency has had four phases: the befuddled period of steady political decline during the president’s first nine months; the high tide of hubris from Sept. 11, 2001, through the 2004 election; the self-destructive overreaching to consolidate a one-party state from 2005 to 2006, culminating in the repudiation of the Republican Congress; and, now, the terminal stage, the great unraveling, as the Democratic Congress works to uncover the abuses of the previous six years.


The discovery of a hitherto unknown treasure-trove of e-mails buried by the Bush White House may prove to be as informative as Nixon’s secret White House tapes. Last week the National Journal disclosed that Karl Rove does “about 95 percent” of his e-mails outside the White House system, instead using a Republican National Committee account. What’s more, Rove doesn’t tap most of his messages on a White House computer, but rather on a BlackBerry provided by the RNC. By this method, Rove and other White House aides evade the legally required archiving of official e-mails. The first glimmer of this dodge appeared in a small item buried in a January 2004 issue of U.S. News & World Report: “‘I don’t want my E-mail made public,’ said one insider. As a result, many aides have shifted to Internet E-mail instead of the White House system. ‘It’s Yahoo!, baby,’ says a Bushie.”

The offshoring of White House records via RNC e-mails became apparent when an RNC domain, gwb43.com (referring to George W. Bush, 43rd president), turned up in a batch of e-mails the White House gave to House and Senate committees earlier this month. Rove’s deputy, Scott Jennings, former Bush legal counsel Harriet Miers and her deputies strangely had used gwb43.com as an e-mail domain.


When I worked in the Clinton White House, people brought in their personal computers if they were engaged in any campaign work, but all official transactions had to be done within the White House system as stipulated by the Presidential Records Act of 1978. (The PRA requires that “the President shall 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.”) Having forsaken the use of Executive Office of the President e-mail, executive privilege has been sacrificed. Moreover, Rove’s and the others’ practice may not be legal.

Continued here.

Waxman Reveals New Evidence Showing White House Use Of Political E-mail Accounts
March 29, 2007

U.S. News reported recently that several White House aides “said that they stopped using the White House system except for purely professional correspondence. … ‘We knew E-mails could be subpoenaed,’” said one aide.

In a new letter to White House counsel Fred Fielding, House Government and Oversight Committee Chairman Henry Waxman reveals new e-mail communications that provide further evidence that White House employees were trying to circumvent the archives system:

New Scott Jennings E-Mails. Scott Jennings, the deputy director of political affairs in the White House, and his assistant used “gwb43.com” e-mail accounts to communicate with the General Services Administration about a partisan briefing that Mr. Jennings gave to political appointees at GSA on January 26, 2007. When Mr. Jennings’s assistant emailed the PowerPoint presentation to GSA, she wrote: “It is a close hold and we’re not supposed to be emailing it around.”

Continued here.

On March 29, 2007, Rep. Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, sent a letter to White House Counsel, Fred Fielding, inquiring about the administration’s e-mail policies:


Moreover, U.S. News & World Report reported yesterday that my letter on Monday to the RNC may be driving official White House communications even further underground. According to this report, at least two White House aides have now “bought their own private E-mail system through a cellular phone or Blackberry server” to avoid the possibilities of subpoenas. Another aide told U.S. News that he now communicates through “texting.”

The statements of White House spokesperson Dana Perino at a press briefing this week only further confused the issue. She said: “Of course, people are encouraged, on official White House business, to use their official White House accounts.” But she did not cite any specific policy or guidance issued to White House staff regarding the use of e-mail accounts and the preservation of presidential records, and she acknowledged that certain officials in the White House have been given access to political e-mail accounts. When asked if a new directive had been issued to White House staff reminding them to use their White House e-mails, she stated, “I don’t know of any new directive, but it is what we ask people to do.”

Read the entire letter here. Mr. Waxman concluded with a request for information about White House policies regarding the preservation of records, including those created on nongovernmental e-mail accounts, by April 5, 2007, and also asked for a briefing on these matters by Fielding or his representative during the week of April 2, 2007.

The Bush Library in Slate and the White House RNC emails

March 29, 2007

This Slate article reveals how the Bush Library controversy has become embedded in larger debates over administration policies and allegations of corruption and criminal misconduct. See also in Slate an interesting critique of “George Bush’s favorite historian,” Andrew Roberts.

Every Man for Himself: Bush administration discipline slips further
John Dickerson
March 27, 2007

As George Bush’s tenure winds down, he has started thinking about building his presidential library. Somewhere off the Mission Accomplished Atrium he should put a boxing ring. An administration that came into office boasting of exemplary teamwork looks like it’s going to end in a hail of blame-placing, finger-pointing, and backbiting.

Continued here.

And the revelations about the use of private e-mail accounts by government officials, apparently in order to prevent the archiving of these public records as required by the Presidential Records Act, is another brewing scandal. It also raises serious doubts about the historical value of the Bush Library as the ultimate repository for the documentary record of this administration, as touted by its supporters, if a deliberate attempt is being made to conceal the real paper trail. On Wednesday, March 28, 2007, Senators Patrick Leahy and John Conyers sent a joint letter to White House Counsel, Fred Fielding (of Watergate fame).


We urge you to provide all relevant documents without delay. The White House documents to and from the Deptartment of Justice and with third parties, such as Republican state party officials, should be provided to us without delay. You have acknowledged your willingness to provide those to us previously.


In addition, we have become increasingly sensitized over the last several days to the White House staff wearing several “hats” and using Republican National Committee and campaign e-mail addresses. In fact, as Chairman Waxman has recently pointed out, congressional investigations, including this one, “have uncovered evidence that White House Staff have used nongovernmental e-mail accounts to conduct official government business.”


As Chairman Waxman has also pointed out, many exchanges between Jack Abramoff and White House officials were conducted via non-governmental e-mail accounts. Indeed, he quotes exchanges that suggest that Mr. Abramoff and House officials were using the nongovernmental accounts specifically to avoid creating a White House “record” of the communications.


Accordingly, we trust that you will be collecting and producing e-mails and documents from all e-mail accounts, addresses and domains and that you are not artificially limiting your production to the official White House e-mail and document retention system.

Read the entire letter here.

Washington Post: House Passes Open-Government Bills

March 16, 2007

House Passes Open-Government Bills
Elizabeth Williamson and Jonathan Weisman
The Washington Post
March 15, 2007

In a bipartisan confrontation with the White House over executive branch secrecy, the House ignored a stern veto threat and overwhelmingly passed a package of open-government bills yesterday that would roll back administration efforts to shield its workings from public view.

Even top Republicans supported three bills that would streamline access to records in presidential libraries, expand safeguards for government whistle-blowers, and strengthen the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which guides public requests for government documents. All were approved with veto-proof majorities.

Continued here.