Presidential dynasties can add layer of secrecy

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A dispute over limits that Bill and Hillary Clinton have placed on the National Archives' ability to release their White House records is highlighting a consequence of family dynasties in contemporary American politics: A president has sweeping power to keep potentially embarrassing documents from past administrations a secret.

When George W. Bush became president in 2001, one of his first acts was to slow the scheduled release of his father's papers from the Reagan-Bush and Bush-Quayle administrations. The younger Bush later asserted executive privilege to maintain the secrecy of several Reagan-era documents related to the Iran-Contra scandal, in which the extent of his father's role remains murky, historians say.

Similarly, should Hillary Clinton become president in 2009, she would exercise sweeping power over what documents from her husband's administration can be made public. Scholars say that the Bush family's experience in matters of presidential records suggests that a return to power for the Clinton family could complicate the release of White House papers from the 1990s.

"There is an extra incentive to suppress documents for presidents who have relatives with records whose disclosure might hurt both them and the incumbent," said Bruce Buchanan, a political science professor at the University of Texas. "Family ties add an emotional and personal dimension to what would otherwise be a purely political or policy issue."

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