For History's Sake, Nothing Like a Paper Trail

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While much of Washington has been focused over the past week on reports about Vice President Cheney's early discussions of Valerie Plame's identity, little notice has been given to something equally surprising about these revelations -- their source. Investigators looking into the case reportedly found evidence of these meetings in former vice presidential aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's own notes of conversations he had with Cheney.

White House alumni across political lines -- and others wise to Washington's current ways -- have undoubtedly had the same incredulous reaction on first hearing this news: You mean he actually wrote it down?

The hostile investigative climate during the Clinton presidency made those serving in that White House especially cautious. Blanket subpoenas from congressional investigators and an army of independent counsels became so commonplace that most Clinton officials developed coping mechanisms to protect themselves. The simplest was to avoid creating documents, such as meeting notes or diaries, in the first place. One political aide, according to oral history interviews with two of his colleagues,kept each day's essential observations on a single index card, which was ritually deposited in a shredder on the way out the door each night. Others learned that, when internal documents had to be constructed, they should be written only in what is termed "discoverable language," meaning language that will do no harm if unearthed in the discovery phase of a lawsuit or investigation.

The consequences of this behavior for historians will, of course, be tragic. The kinds of written records we have relied on for a millennium to reconstruct the crucial events of the past will be either compromised or in many cases nonexistent, leading to what can rightly be called a vanishing history of the American presidency.

Or so we have thought.

The current administration remains a mystery on this point. Its senior ranks are filled with seasoned Washington hands who have lived through much of the litigious history of the modern presidency -- and who thus know firsthand the perils of the written word. Indeed Cheney himself once informed Bob Woodward that he keeps no diary -- and pointed to his head when Woodward asked where the history of the Bush years could be found.

Yet this is also an administration that has operated in an environment fundamentally different from its predecessors. The independent counsel statute expired in June 1999, before the Bush administration took office. And Congress has been docile and thus not inclined to perform the kind of dogged oversight that generates subpoenaphobia.

Moreover, the wartime climate in the post-9/11 era has created a muscular presidency at the head of a powerful security state, which has given this White House, until quite recently, a kind of impervious standing in Washington.

[Russell Riley is a research professor in the Presidential Oral History Program of the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs.]

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