John Wertman: Bush's Obstruction of History

Roundup: Talking About History

[The writer was on President Bill Clinton's White House staff from 1999 to 2001 and is now director of public policy at the Association of American Geographers.]

At some point in the next few months, President Bush is expected to announce his choice for the location of his presidential library. Once it's open, most of the media attention is likely to focus on the public exhibits, which will no doubt extol the president's compassionate conservatism, his leadership immediately after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and his impressive selections of John Roberts and Sam Alito for the Supreme Court.

More important to history, however, are the documents that the National Archives will store in the Bush library. These records tell the real story of an administration. Some reveal heartfelt empathy and honest division about a hard decision facing a president at a given moment in time; others may prove embarrassing and show nothing but the basest of political motivations. But for better or for worse, these records belong to the American people and should be available so that future generations can learn from the triumphs and failures of our past leaders.

It was chiefly for this reason that Congress passed the Presidential Records Act in 1978. The law was intended to ensure that after a period of no more than 12 years, presidential records, other than those dealing with existing national security matters and a few other exempted categories, would be made available to the public forever. Thus the law serves as the final check on indiscretion in office and the final basis for presidential accountability.

The law's presumption of public access held firm for more than two decades, but in 2001 President Bush used post-Sept. 11 security measures as a reason to issue an executive order that turns the law on its head. Bush's decree allows former presidents and their heirs to bar the release of documents for almost any reason. It flies in the face of congressional intent and forces our nation's leading historians to take legal action if they want to gain access to documents.

The executive order, No. 13233, drew quite a bit of attention when it was first issued. A group led by the watchdog organization Public Citizen challenged the order's legality in federal court, but the case has been plagued by procedural delays and is still pending. A handful of bills were introduced in Congress that would have overturned the order, but none made it farther than committee.

Unfortunately, time has taken its toll on efforts to force the order's repeal, and hardly any public or political attention is being paid to the issue today, even though it represents a wholesale change in the way the federal government preserves and promotes our national public memory....

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