Will Bush Control His Presidential Library?
Wed December 20, 2006 1:57 am

Proselytizers for the New Media, of whom I am not one, say that the Internet is superior to the mainstream media in disseminating information to the public. I have always been skeptical about this claim (except when I am doing the disseminating), but I have seen it come to life with regard to my posting on the efforts of the faculty and staff at SMU's Perkins School of Theology to persuade the university's board of trustees to rescind SMU's pursuit of the George W. Bush's presidential library.

Most of the 63 comments that have been posted so far did not advance the cause of human knowledge. They were mainly rabid and tasteless anti-Bush comments. But for readers who are interested in whether Bush actually can control the material in his libraries, and not just in taking verbal shots at the president, a few comments addressed whether Bush and his supporters could use the library as a means of actively pursuing "a partisan agenda in favor of Bush's policies and program...." A commenter named Brian mentioned briefly Executive Order 13233, signed by Bush, which could allow the archives to be stripped of damaging documents, which could be withheld from scholars. But an anonymous archivist has written two responses, the first of which I posted, and the second of which I am reproducing below. These two postings contain a wealth of information from a professional who appears to be nonpartisan, and the bottom line is that Bush, in all probability, will have little control over what materials scholars will be able to see.

I am going to post both of the archivist's submissions below. Key passages appear in bold face:

THE FIRST SUBMISSION

A few observations (well, not so few, this is quite lengthy as the issues are arcane) from an Archival Expert:

Whichever university has an association with the George W. Bush Presidential Library, one thing is clear. The administrators, faculty and students of that university (a non-governmental entity) will have no say over what information in the President's historical records eventually is released to the public by the Library. None. Zero. Zip. That is because those records belong to the government and no one associated with a university would be a government employee working at the Library. No one associated with the university itself will have a say over what is released and what is restricted. The university community may have some relation to a scholarly center associated with the Presidential Library and have some host involvement in conferences, perhaps even partake in some public presentations, but it will not staff nor administer the library and its archival holdings.

Some Presidential Libraries do have scholarly centers associated with them. However, Presidential Libraries themselves are archival repositories and are staffed by archivists employed by the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), an agency in the executive branch of the federal government. Librarians and academics do not play a central role in such libraries -- nor do books. Rather, Presidential Libraries house government records created during the Presidency. These records are screened for public access by archivists who are civil servants employed by NARA. (Most federal archivists have graduate degrees in history and are hired if they meet federal hiring requirements for archivist jobs in the GS-1420 job series as set by the Office of Personnel Management. See this pdf file) For more on NARA and Presidential Libraries, see this.

Prior to Watergate, Presidential records were considered the property of the President. This changed in the 1970s. Consequently, comparing the LBJ Library to the Library of any President who has held office after Jimmy Carter is like comparing apples and oranges. Although it is staffed by federal archivists employed by NARA, the LBJ Library is a donor-restricted library. LBJ had the right to screen his records and to donate selected portions to a Presidential Library. And to place any restrictions on his donated records that he wished. In a book published in 1975, Theodore White alleged that LBJ's attitude caused problems for "the chief archivist at the Johnson Library, who confessed that he did not really enjoy the task of expurgating the historical record that had been left in his care. Historians, observed the librarian [White errs, the title is archivist], don't like to work with material that is salted." LBJ died in 1973, four years after leaving office. Relatively few records and no tapes of his Presidential conversations were released while he still was alive. See the article by John Powers for details of how portions of LBJ's tapes came to be released. As Powers explains, correctly, the eventual release of LBJ's tapes had little to do with the University of Texas but related instead to a law governing records relating to JFK's assassination. Since the passage of the Presidential Records Act (PRA) of 1978, Presidential records remain under governmental control after a President leaves office and uniform laws and regulations govern what can be released to the public. Records that document a President's constitutional, statutory and ceremonial duties no longer are regarded as his property but are considered government property. Hence their transfer to the Library is not a donation and there is no conveyance through a transfer deed of gift from the former President to NARA, as in LBJ's day. Rather, the original legislative intent was that Presidential records were supposed to fall under statutory control from the time they were created until releasable portions eventually were disclosed to the public at the Library.

While the National Archives staffs both donor-restricted and PRA administered Presidential Libraries, private foundations associated with a President, his family, and supporters raise money to build the Presidential Libraries. The foundations stay in place after a Library is built. People associated with the university would not be privy to information about interactions that took place between members of the President's foundation and the federal archivists, unless, like any other members of the public, they filed a Freedom of Information Act request and asked that pertinent records about archival matters be screened for potential release. A previous poster noted that President Bush has issued an Executive Order which affects application of the PRA by the National Archives. It remains to be seen what impact the Order will have. The late Hugh Davis Graham wrote about President Bush's Executive Order (13233) in an article posted in 2001 on the History News Network. The E.O. is subject to ongoing litigation with the Public Citizen Litigation Group representing a group of historians. In any litigation involving the National Archives, it is attorneys working for the U.S. Department of Justice who speak in court on behalf of the U.S. Archivist and his employees, including those at Presidential Libraries. They do not have separate representation, rather, as do all executive branch employees, they are represented in court by DOJ. For more on the litigation involving the Executive Order see fas.org and tradewatch.org.
For a good account for general readers which explains the history and different types of Presidential Libraries, see Paula Span's "Monumental Ambition," first published in the Washington Post's magazine in 2002 and now available at oregonstate.edu. For an article about Presidential Libraries by a respected professor of archival science, see Dr. Richard J. Cox's "America's Pyramids."

THE SECOND POSTING

Some questions from the Archival Expert. Mr. Burka, do the faculty, administrators and staff at SMU whose letter you cite take a position on E.O. 13233, the order (still in litigation, I believe) which President George W. Bush signed in 2001, enabling Presidential families to block government archivists from releasing information from historical records? Do they delve in their letter into any of the following: statutory and consitutional issues; the rocky and ongoing transition from private to public control of Presidential records; the difficulties the National Archives has faced in opening Nixon's and Reagan's records under the PRMPA of 1974 and the PRA of 1978, as described in articles by Seymour Hersh, Jack Hitt, Stanley Kutler, among others, and in court records; the legislative intent of the Presidential Records Act of 1978; the work of the U.S. National Study Commission on Records and Documents of Federal Officials (1974-1977), commonly known as the Public Documents Commission; and so forth? How much contextual sophistication does their letter reflect? I'm trying to assess the strategic approach and knowledge displayed by the people who signed the letter you mention. The reason I ask is, many of the people commenting on your blog seem to be shooting in the dark or shooting from the hip, often without seeming to understand the different roles and functions of a government administered Presidential Library (including the difference between a donor-restricted and a statutorily controlled Library), the impact of the Bush executive order, the ongoing role of a Presidential foundation after a Library is built, the purpose of a study center or think tank funded by that Presidential foundation, and how a university would fit in to this whole mix.

I noticed that the Huffington Post website which linked to your blog entry was replete with jokes about books, as if the people commenting believe that is what a Presidential Library holds. (The people commenting here make fewer jokes about the number of books but still have not dug deeply into the issues I've mentioned.) Perhaps none of the people commenting there have stopped to think what in archival records may be of value to historians. Or researched the statutes that govern what can and cannot be released to the public from Presidential records. Or considered how confidentiality easily can be conflated with privacy. Or examined the footnotes and bibliography of any well known work by a noted Presidential historian (Michael Beschloss, Robert Dallek, Stephen Ambrose, Stanley Kutler, Joan Hoff.) Or perhaps they have read such books but haven't had the time to sit down and connect all the dots between accessibility of archival resources and quality of conclusory narratives. It was strange on Huffington Post and, to some extent, here as well, to see people criticize the concept of a Bush Presidential Library and to hold forth in their postings on issues of competence - yet do so by putting on display their own willingness to shoot from the hip. Most of the posts I've seen reflect considerable ignorance about --the role and function of a Presidential Library; --archivists' professional and statutory obligations and their code of ethics; --the National Archives' objective nonpartisan mission and affirmative obligations under the PRA of 1978; --the varying goals of archivists, scholars, journalists, a President's family, associates, supporters, partisans, and opponents; --the difficulty of releasing controversial information while the creators of records still are alive; --how to apply balancing tests so that they properly weight the public's right to know against a potential "chilling effect" in disclosure of records detailing some governmental actions; --what constitutes proper restriction of a government record. A high ranking official at the National Archives has noted in a public statement that "in no case can information be classified in order to conceal violations of law or to prevent embarrassment to a person, organization or agency. Unfortunately, there have been instances giving the impression that information has been classified in violation of the Order." --the role of judicial review in records access battles. Yet Nexis and ProQuest are full of articles, op eds, and commentary about the Presidential Records Act and the Bush Executive Order. Somehow I don't imagine that most of the people commenting -- on HuffPo or here -- would welcome superficial potshots from outsiders about their own line of work, especially if press releases and news accounts barely scratched the surface of complex and contentious issues with which they may deal at their own employing organizations.

There is no single model of a Presidential Library. Whether donor-restricted or administered under statute, much depends on the people involved, inside the Library, in the Foundation, and in the President's family. Consequently, there also is no unanimity of opinion among the scholars who use the different Presidential Libraries. Indeed, while some historians criticize the Libraries and the National Archives for a lack of courage, other historians praise the Libraries as rich sources for scholarship, especially as time passes and more and more records are released. Some historians argue that it is better to have government officials create richer records and for scholars to wait longer for them to be released, rather than to lose out on access to good primary source material that never is created due to a "chilling effect." Others, such as Hugh Davis Graham, point to early disclosure of government records as a potential brake on improper action by government officials. As to Presidential foundations, Paula Span notes in her article that "those foundations don't dematerialize after the libraries get turned over to the National Archives; they still wield purse-string power, funding exhibits and setting priorities, sometimes in ways the professional staff appreciates, sometimes not." That's why I'm interested in hearing if the signers of the SMU letter addresed issues related to the Bush Foundation, the role of the National Archives, archivists' statutory obligations, legislative intent, ongoing litigation over the E.O., the purposes of the proposed scholarly center or think thank, and so forth. You've seen their letter, Mr. Burka, I have not. Any additional insights about content, strategic approaches, level of knowledge, etc., would be welcome. [In fact, none of these aspects of presidential libraries was raised in the Perkins School letter.--pb]

--This is the great benefit of working in real time. Had I been working on an article about the Bush Library, it would have taken me weeks to run down the most knowledgeable sources, to read the statutes and the articles, and to reach the level of understanding that was conveyed by these two postings. I'm awed by the power of this medium. I'm less impressed by most of the correspondents, who seemed mainly interested in venting about Bush.

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