Blogs > HNN > All Those Wonderful Memos Roberts Wrote!

Sep 6, 2005 7:32 pm

All Those Wonderful Memos Roberts Wrote!

Too much of the coverage surrounding the John G. Roberts, Jr. Supreme Court nomination resembles the work of a graduate student who discovered a treasure trove of archival documents but failed a basic methodology course. Thrilled by thousands of Roberts-related pages in the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, reporters have had a field day providing “inside” glimpses into how Roberts supposedly thinks, acts, and writes. (See, for example, "In Re Grammar, Roberts's Stance Is Crystal Clear.") Taking all these revelations too seriously, opponents have built their case against President Bush’s nominee referring to 20-year-old records: “A review of John Roberts’ record and the tens of thousands of pages of documents so far released by the Administration show that confirming John Roberts would endanger much of the progress made by the nation in civil rights over the past half-century,” People for the American Way warn.

Those of us who have researched in presidential libraries and other archives recognize the feeling. After long, tedious hours of searching, you find memos and letters capturing your subject in a private moment, flogging an obsession, telling a joke, needling a colleague, tackling an issue that seems relevant today. When you write your magnum opus, the temptation is to do a document dump, unload your notes, and string together all these apparently revealing glimpses. But well-trained historians know that context is crucial. The illuminating anecdotes must be sifted through a framework assessing just who the subject was at the time, what he or she was doing, and what is the relevance of a document at one point in a person’s career to that person’s overall philosophy or record. Such nuance is missing from too much of the Roberts coverage and debate.

“Young White House lawyers,” as Roberts is often described, rarely have the discretion these articles attribute to them. Sometimes, aides tell their bosses what the bosses want to hear, what others want the bosses to hear, or what the aides think their bosses wanted to hear. Only occasionally do they speak their own minds. Careful historians, mature biographers, learn to recognize the differences, and inform their readers. Headline-driven journalists or angry partisans prefer, however, to exaggerate their targets’ autonomy, making the statements sound more personal and authoritative. 

This promiscuous and sloppy use of the presidential library records should make us wince, no matter where we stand on the Roberts nomination. Roberts is a conservative nominee nominated by a conservative president who has held positions as a conservative aide in other conservative administrations. It is fair to judge him on those terms and analyze his opinions to understand his judicial and political philosophy. But combing through his memos from the 1980s to build the case to “Reject Roberts” appears disproportionate and misleading.

Moreover, this records review will inhibit future aides. Back in the 1980s, when Judge Robert Bork was so scrutinized that even his video rental record was assessed (turns out he liked, shock of all shocks, Fred Astaire), I heard a group of Bork aides fret about their “paper trails.” A couple of years later, when running a freshman seminar at Harvard, I noticed that many students assumed their collegiate behavior would affect their future professional reputations. By the time private diaries were being subpoenaed during the Clinton Administration, and the 28-year-old Treasury aide Josh Steiner wished his own diary had “been more accurate” -- the message was clear: Big Brother is not just watching you, no matter how lowly an official you may be, he is eager to pounce and publicize your most embarrassing and private thoughts if you dare commit them to paper.

Ethicists, philosophers, and theologians, may approve – many of our ancestors acted morally because they always felt God was watching; today’s more secular careerists may hew to the straight and narrow to avoid being “Borked.” But overly cautious and careerist aides, ever fearful about how their advice will be misread decades later, could become ever more circumspect, especially when writing memos. This restraint risks depriving their bosses of bold, even peppery advice, and denuding the historical record of the rich give and take which shapes governmental policy. 

There should be a vigorous, substantive debate about John Roberts’ qualifications for the Supreme Court. But the focus should remain on what he has done and stood for when operating as an independent agent, most notably as a judge in recent years, rather than quoting memos he wrote decades ago, without taking into account the power dynamics, office politics, and hierarchical context which affected young Mister Roberts as he climbed the Washington career ladder.

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