NYT editorialist says SMU should insist Bush rescind controversial order limiting records access before saying yes to a library

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The news reports that President Bush’s representatives seem to be closing in on a deal to put a half-billion-dollar presidential library and policy institute at Southern Methodist University in Dallas has inspired the predictable lame jokes and references to “The Pet Goat.”

But the project raises issues that are no laughing matter, touching on the writing of history, the university’s scholarly mission, governmental integrity and the rule of law.

S.M.U.’s negotiations regarding Mr. Bush’s library are bound to have a large public impact, which is why I’m hoping that the university’s president, R. Gerald Turner, and members of his board of trustees (presuming Laura Bush, the best-known trustee, has removed herself from the deliberations) can be persuaded to withhold a final go-ahead unless two basic conditions are met.

First, the university should insist that Mr. Bush rescind Executive Order 13233, his 2001 directive that reverses — illegally in the view of many leading historians, journalists and legal thinkers — the strong presumption of a public right of access to presidential papers embedded in the 1978 Presidential Records Act.

Under this early exertion of presidential power, both sitting presidents and former presidents (and even their heirs) can indefinitely postpone public release of sensitive material past the law’s usual 12-year waiting period by simply denying a request for access. No explanation is required, and there is no provision for appealing the denial to a trained professional archivist.

Instead, the executive order requires the person requesting the material to begin a costly and time-consuming lawsuit challenging the stonewalling. It’s a formula for keeping embarrassing facts secret in perpetuity and for thwarting a full and accurate accounting of a president’s time in office, which, presumably, was among S.M.U.’s prime goals in seeking to be home to the new presidential edifice, along with enhancing the university’s visibility, prestige and available financial resources.

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