Who Can Write Obama's History?


Mr. Weisbrode is the Vincent Wright Fellow in History at the European University Institute, Florence, Italy and a writer for the History News Service.

American presidents have been known to want a loyal follower close at hand to record their achievements for the ages. Lincoln had Nicolay and Hay. Grant had Twain. Franklin Roosevelt had Sherwood and Rosenman. Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan each had Edmund Morris. What about Barack Obama? Who will write his history?

The answer is simple: Obama himself.

It's hard to recall a recent president entering office with so heavy a historical burden. No fewer than half a dozen major books about him reportedly are in the works. They'll try to define Obama's presidency before he's had his own chance to do so.

Leave it to Obama to take it all in stride. It's easy to imagine him suggesting casually, as John F. Kennedy did to his would-be iconographer, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., that he hopes someone is busy getting it all down. The hint was vintage Kennedy. For surely there was no better reason to employ Schlesinger, the historian who had already done wonders for Jackson and FDR.

Of all the recent presidents, Kennedy was the most historically sensitive -- if we're to agree with Schlesinger -- in that he possessed an almost existential sense of himself. Yet out of his mere one thousand days in office a powerful legend was born that survives to this day. That wasn't by accident.

Other post-World War II presidents have fared less well. Who today remembers the histories of Eric Goldman (on LBJ), or Emmet Hughes and Stephen Ambrose (on Eisenhower)? Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, Clinton and both Bushes each lacked a successful court historian, Haldeman, Woodward, Bernstein and Rove notwithstanding.

Judging by what we've seen so far, Obama won't suffer their lot. He's been lucky in the quality of his admirers. No, he has a different problem. In contrast with Kennedy, Obama has substituted ambivalence for subtlety where history is concerned.

He pays regular homage to it but doesn't seem taken with historians, as Bush II or Truman were. He's conscious of his own prominent place in the nation's history but has gone out of his way to downplay the legacy issue. From what we've seen so far, Obama prefers to show, not tell.

That's why he'll end up writing the history of his presidency himself. Which won't be so bad. Obama's already an accomplished memoirist. He evidently prefers to be his own foreign minister and his own in-house intellectual. So why not his own historian?

In this he reminds us of Kennedy's famous remark to a group of high achievers that the White House had not seen so many great minds in one place since Thomas Jefferson dined there alone. But even Jefferson came to suffer from the whims of history -- and historians.

Obama won't let that happen. Instead, he's likely to take his cue from Winston Churchill, who is said to have said, history will be kind to me, for I intend to write it. But he risks doing so at a disadvantage unless he begins to take the historians' craft seriously.

The president-elect must make sure that he, or a trusted associate, really does get it all down. For no history or president can have lasting value without leaving behind an honest and thorough record which stands the test of time. This could prove to be Obama's biggest challenge of all.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

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Maarja Krusten - 1/6/2009

Thank you for your kind words! Here's some additional information for those who want to examine the nitty gritty of some of the issues on which the author touched.

As someone who spent 14 years as an employee of the U.S. National Archives, I’m struck by the author’s use of terms such as “iconographer” and “legend.” My history training did not focus on such terms. Rather, it conditioned me to look at history simply as the process of determining what happened and why. I think of scholars of the Presidency as people who examine the disclosed portions of existing records and conduct oral history interviews and then write conclusory narratives based on accumulated evidence. That is what Stephen Ambrose did in writing about Dwight Eisenhower.

Some of the other people mentioned in the essay, such as H. R. (Bob) Haldeman and Karl Rove, were not historians but officials working in the White House. Rove and Haldeman had differing record keeping obligations. Rove served under a President whose records fall under the Presidential Records Act of 1978. This requires preservation of certain records for eventual transfer to the National Archives through a process of records management. Records that document executive actions (constitutional, statutory, and ceremonial) fall under the statute. Records covering a President’s purely private political associations are exempt from this preservation and transfer requirement. They are regarded as personal property.

Haldeman served in an administration in which the President assumed that *all* his White House records would be his personal property, as had been the records of predecessors such as LBJ and JFK. When Nixon resigned in the face of impeachment, Congress passed a law (the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act) which made them government property, instead. That is how I came to work with Nixon taped conversations and documents. Those PRMPA-controlled documents included handwritten notes that Haldeman wrote during meetings with the President. (See
http://www.nixonlibrary.gov/virtuallibrary/documents/dec08/062371_Haldeman.pdf for an example.)

Bob Haldeman also kept a diary while serving as Nixon’s chief of staff (he initially wrote in out by hand, later dictated entries on audio cassettes). But Nixon had no awareness that he was doing so. As a product which he wrote and dictated at home, Bob’s diary was his personal property. It did not fall under the PRMPA but for legal reasons, we at NARA, rather than he, held the original. (As Bob noted in the Foreword when he later published portions of the diary, “I marked it ‘top secret’ and placed it in a safe in the Office of the Staff Secretary.”) The National Archives negotiated a settlement with the former chief of staff during the 1980s and provided him with copies of the unclassified portions. While we at the National Archives at one time proposed to release portions of Haldeman’s diary for public research, something Haldeman agreed to and appeared to want, such action by the government did not occur while Nixon was alive. (As they say, “it’s complicated.”) Haldeman ended up arranging for publication of the unclassified portions of the diary himself.

For an interesting take on a subset of John F. Kennedy’s records by a historian who once blogged here on HNN (Thomas Reeves), see

John Connally - 1/5/2009

Thank you, Maarja, for bringing us back to reality. Some are getting a little carried away in the moment.

Maarja Krusten - 1/4/2009

Modern day Presidents write memoirs, not history. No President could write the history of his administration for three reasons (1) he (or she) would lack the historical detachment necessary for writing his own history; (2) history is not written by a person with a vested interest in how he is presented nor from a single point of view; and (3) the account would have to be sanitized as he could not reveal national-security classified information, some of which might become eligible for declassification only 30 years from now. Most Presidents write their memoirs within a few years of leaving office.

Assessing what happened and why requires multiple perspectives (contemporaneous and retrospective) along with corroboration and cross checking of sources, both oral and written.

That is not to say a President's memoirs would not be useful. Obama's would be as useful for the historians who end up writing about him as those of any of his predecessor. I recognize that not all Presidential memoirs are alike, as Presidents vary in their levels of introspection, the extent to which they rely on ghost writers or writing assistance, and the extent to which they are willing to share their thoughts and inner lives. But no matter how well written and thoughtful, a memoir is just that--the version of events that a principal says he or she remembers and is willing to share with the public.

Look at the footnotes for any book about a Presidency. Look at the multitude of sources and the number of authors of internal documents -- even just within the Executive Office of the President. Think of the information that circulates within a White House through a network of adies. Only some of it reaches the President. Some matters never rise to his attention but are handled by senior aides.

So the historian needs to consider what the President saw and how he came to see it. Who prepared the briefing material? What criteria did they use? What did they include, what did they exclude? Did they act as an honest broker in preparing briefing papers, option papers, and talking points for the President? What do drafts tell a scholar, when compared with a final document?

There is a great example of what a President sees and what those around him do in the National Archives' Nixon Presidential Library's "When Nixon Met Elvis." Take a look at
There you will see the incoming handwritten letter from Elvis Presley; the memorandum which Presidential aide Dwight Chapin sent to Nixon's chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, discussing options for handling Presley; and the Memorandum for the President (with talking points) which then was prepared and sent to Nixon. (Look for the stamp and A initial from aide Alexander Butterfield --yes, the man who in 1973 revealed the existence of the taping system -- noting that the President actually saw the memorandum. You'll also see photographs of the meeting. The President could provide you his recollection of the meeting and of the one memorandum he received. He would have no awareness of the written pre-meeting deliberations between Chapin and Haldeman. (In the memo from Chapin to Haldeman, note on page 2 Haldeman's handwritten annotation -- "you've got to be kidding" as he reacts to one of Chapin's suggestions.)

Just this one little meeting with a celebrity shows what the principal knows and sees and what his subordinates do to prepare for meetings. More complex matters would generate a lot more paperwork, some seen by the President, some reflecting reactions of those around him and probably never seen by him. The historian needs to see all of this and to assess the workplace dynamics and relationships as well as individual recollections.

Electronic record keeping is tricky. You have to preserve the metadata. I don't know whether Obama will use email while in office. Up to now, Presidents have avoided doing so. (George Bush said upon taking office that he did not want his communications sought by "those out to embarrass." Of course, statutes only require the records of his Presidential actions to be preserved. Purely private material is outside the scope of the records laws.)

Even if a President choses to use email, it is hard to tell what he actually saw. A President could have multiple accounts. (If he chose to use email, he would have to use separate ones for governmental business and for purely political business. Messages in the former would be preserved by law. Messages in the latter would be personal and he could dispose of them at will. See Nixon v. Administrator of General Services regarding a President's right to private political association.)

But metadata can be tricky. Just because a message is marked by the email client as opened doesn't tell you the Presidet saw it. It could have been opened by a subordinate who was authorized to log in and screen and filter messages for him.

Then there is the question of how to preserve the primary source material generated by a White House. Some of the electronic records created in the White House during the Bush administration reportedly used proprietary software. (See
http://arstechnica.com/news.ars/post/20081230-national-archives-struggling-to-absorb-bush-data-glut.html )

It is up to the National Archives to figure out ways to preserve material maintained originally within proprietary software systems so that it still is readable 50 years from now. The days of paper-based record keeping were much easier in that regard.

As articulate a speaker and thoughtful and good a writer as Obama appears to be, I don't look for him to do anything other than to write a memoir. The process of records management (handled by the White House Office of Records Management) and the requirements of the Presidential Records Act of 1978 will take care of the millions of documents that constitute a multiple-perspective contemporaneous record. A President may choose to have a Schlesinger-type court historian (most do not) but given the way the very complex history of U.S. government actions actually is pieced together painstakingly over time, scholars are unlikely to look to him or her for the definitive history of an administration. Nor will they ever look for that from a President, no matter how accomplished and well-spoken.

Maarja Krusten
Historian and former National Archives' Nixon tapes archivist