Blogs > HNN > Are Americans Well-Informed about the Iraq War?

Jul 24, 2008 2:47 pm


Are Americans Well-Informed about the Iraq War?



Mr. Shenkman, the author of the new book, Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth About the American Voter (Basic Books, June 2008), is an associate professor of history at George Mason University and editor of the university's History News Network.

Just a few years ago we had polls indicating that the American public knew so little about foreign affairs that they believed that Saddam Hussein was behind 9-11. According to a Washington Post poll in September 2003--6 months after the war began--70 percent remained under this delusion. It wasn't entirely the voters' fault, of course. The Bush administration, in collusion with some media outlets, had repeatedly dropped hints that Saddam was behind the 2001 attack. But the facts were widely available and by September 2003 there was no excuse for failing to have grasped the truth about the absence of a link between al Qaeda and Saddam. Anyone paying attention knew that the government had used fear and misinformation in order to attract support for the war against Iraq.

Now, however, we are being told the public has made a splendid recovery. A Zogby poll commissioned by Poynter claims, according to a headline:"Americans Say They're Well-Informed, But Dissatisfied With Coverage of Iraq War." Pull out the champagne! It's time to celebrate! Apparently Americans have suddenly assumed the responsibility of following the news closely and now share the discontent of the high-minded crowd (like those who run Poynter) who have been appalled at the media's performance during the past few years.

Pardon me for thinking we have found fool's gold in this story.

Zogby reports that 75 percent of Americans say they are well-informed about the war. This is something of a surprise. In past polls Americans have admitted that they barely follow events. But should we take Americans' statements at face value? It would be naive to do so. A majority of Americans do not know that we have 3 branches of government. Do we suppose they don't know this but they do know what's going on in Iraq, a country only 1 in 7 young people can find on the map, according to National Geographic ? Ambrose Bierce cleverly said,"War is God's way of teaching Americans geography." But the renowned cynic may have been overly optimistic.

Iraq is a mess, in part, because it's a complicated country. Even experts like the historian Juan Cole often have trouble figuring out what's going on. Just this past week news reports indicated that Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani may be prepared to issue a fatwa in support of attacks on foreign troops (i.e. Americans). Cole speculated on the reasons Sistani may finally be taking this drastic measure but admited he doesn't really know.

Even policy makers often seem to find Iraq impenetrable. From the statements President Bush makes it appears that he is unaware that Iran was the sponsor of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, one of the main Iraqi parties he is busy promoting at the same time he is denouncing Iran for its interference in Iraq's internal affairs.

Bush haters will find it easy to conclude that the Yale self-described C student has trouble following events in a war he started. But it is a stretch to believe that the public, which is notoriously inattentive, possesses superior knowledge.

The second part of the headline is equally problematic. According to Poynter, ordinary Americans want more stories about the course the war is actually taking. By contrast journalists, Poynter says, believe the public wants more stories about the impact of the war at home.

Are journalists deluded? I don't think so. What people tell pollsters is often what they think pollsters want to hear. This has become such a big problem that many consultants now discount the findings of focus groups. As Joe Klein recounts in his book Politics Lost, the people in focus groups know what educated voters are supposed to say so they provide answers that make them sound educated.

This is hardly to be unexpected. It's the theme of the 1947 movie, Magic Town, starring Jimmy Stewart. The movie is about a town called Grandview that happens to be a pollster's dream, a perfect microcosm of the country at large. How Grandview goes, goes the nation. Unfortunately, the people of Grandview eventually learn that pollsters are using the results of surveys in the town to project national opinions about important subjects. Realizing that their opinions count more than others, they begin taking their civics duties seriously and start reading the paper religiously. By studying the issues they become well-informed. This naturally skews subsequent polling results, spoiling the town's usefulness as a survey-takers' model.

Over at his blog, Informed Comment, Juan Cole suggests that journalists should consider giving Americans more war news. I agree that they should. But I don't for a minute believe that Americans actually want war news. All the evidence we have about Americans suggests that they want news that makes them feel good about themselves. War news doesn't. They don't want to see the coffins coming back from Iraq anymore than the Bush administration wants to show them.

The revulsion to President Bush, accounting for his near-record low approval ratings, is based to a great extent on his inability to sustain the illusion that victory in Iraq is around the corner. Americans long ago gave up on the war, as Frank Rich repeatedly intones, and they don't really want to be reminded of it. They want it over. They don't much care how it ends. One of the reasons Barack Obama has outdistanced Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination is that he has offered a pain-free end to the war that she can't convincingly make since she voted for it.

President Bush gambled that we could win the war quickly. He was wrong about this. But he was not wrong in thinking that the public wanted to ignore the war. When he told us after 9/11 to go shopping it was what Americans wanted to hear. In a consumer society what voters want is to consume. He didn't ask for sacrifice because Karl Rove told him people don't want to make sacrifices. Historian David Kennedy took Bush to task for not requiring Americans to make sacrifices, noting that all previous war presidents had (most raised taxes, for instance, and none lowered them). It is unclear, however, if Americans would have responded any more positively to Bush's wars if he had raised taxes.

Why at this late date do some want to misconstrue Bush's mistakes? They want to believe that the American people are more serious about politics than they actually are.

All the evidence we have is that Americans today are not serious about politics. They barely pay attention to it. Most get their information about important events from television and they get most of what they know about the specific policies of presidential candidates from 30 second spots, as Annenberg studies repeatedly demonstrate.

We don't have smart voters in this country. We should stop pretending that we do.




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More Comments:


Jim in Europe - 6/13/2008

Dear Mr. Shenkman:

The reason that most Americans probably are not as "informed" as you are is that they have real jobs and families to take care of and do not have time to go researching everthing that is wrong with our government. So get off your high horse about how "well informed" you are.

Secondly, I trust General Petraeus and his analysis more than I trust yours. I do not know if you have ever been to Iraq, but as someone who comes from a military family, and who proudly has a younger brother currently in training to become an officer in the United States Marines, I have quite a great deal of contact with military personnel. While there is a great deal of dispute within the military as to whether or not Iraq was a good decision or not (read: by people that are actually directly affected by the war), the overwhelming majority of them will agree that Iraq is getting better and better, by significant margins. I do not know if Mr. Shenkman has ever visited Iraq, or at least more than just a well-guarded cafe in a green zone, but this is what I have heard from the mouths of people that have been in-country.

Thirdly - on the reasons that we went to Iraq. Based on intelligence from the CIA, which was, at the time headed by George Tenet (read: an appointee of the CLINTON YEARS), the Bush Administation decided that Saddam was in violation of international law concernig the development, and proliferation of, Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs). Such things, WMDs cover a wide variety of particularly Nasty Business, many of which are relatively easy to make, easy to sneak across porous borders (or create domestically), easy to conceal (can fit into a suitcase) and then be detonated/released in target locations, such as the New York Subway, vital water supplies, etc. If you think that 9/11 was bad, wait until someone sets off a dirty bomb in a crowded stadium, mall, train station, etc.

The US position here was supported by a resolution by the U.N Security Council, which voted 12 to 1 that the Hussein Regime was in violation of international law concerning the production, use, and distribution of chemical weapons (Syria abstained, hence the "1"). If you are in doubt, look it up. That, or try and figure out how else Saddam could gas thousands of Kurds - what do you think that Saddam did, have them stuck in a non-ventilated air-tight room with Mr. Shenkman for a couple of hours???

Going back to the U.N. Along with Amnesty International, the United Nations found the Saddam Regime in egregious violation of Human Rights Treatises. However, when it came to doing anything about it, the U.N was to busy passing resolutions against Israel - last year alone, for example, they managed to pass 13 against the Jewish state, out of a total of 15 total for the entire year. So we are supposed to rely on an international organization such as this to stop rogue states such as Iraq from developing, proliferating, and possibly using WMDs, when it is to busy passing 86.67 percent of its Human Rights Resolutions against the state of Israel? Hmm, sounds reliable and trustworthy...but then again, Kofi Annan, his son, and several member states were not toooo busy to take bribes from Saddam over the years....

Yes, most Americans are not always totally informed of the facts. Yes, most do not have the inclination, nor the time, to go and research deeply political issues. However, by and large, most Americans are practical. They know what people like Saddam are about, they see the weakness and/or selfßinterest of our "allies" (I live in Europe myself, so I can agree with this first hand), and are thus more likely to rely on our government and what it has to say then by some cocky journalist who has all the time in the world to sit back and tell us how stupid we are.

Thank you.

A proud American living Overseas.


Jim - 6/11/2008

Dear Mr. Shenkman:

The reason that most Americans probably are not as "informed" as you are is that they have real jobs and families to take care of and do not have time to go researching what is wrong with our government. So get off your high horse about how "well informed" you are.

Secondly, I trust General Petraeus and his analysis more than I trust yours. I do not know if you have ever been to Iraq, but as someone who comes from a military family, and who proudly has a younger brother currently in training to become an officer in the United States Marines, I have quite a great deal of contact with military personnel. While there is a great deal of dispute within the military as to whether or not Iraq was a good decision or not (read: by people that are actually directly affected by the war), the overwhelming majority of them will agree that Iraq is getting better and better, by significant margins. I do not know if Mr. Shenkman has ever visited Iraq, or at least more than just a well-guarded cafe in a green zone, but this is what I have heard from the mouths of people that have been in-country.

Thirdly - on the reasons that we went to Iraq. Based on intelligence from the CIA, which was, at the time headed by George Tenet (read: an appointee of the CLINTON YEARS), the Bush Administation decided that Saddam was in violation of international law concernig the development, and proliferation of, Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs). Such things, WMDs cover a wide variety of particularly Nasty Business, many of which are relatively easy to make, easy to sneak across porous borders (or create domestically), easy to conceal (can fit into a suitcase) and then be detonated/released in target locations, such as the New York Subway, vital water supplies, etc. If you think that 9/11 was bad, wait until someone sets off a dirty bomb in a crowded stadium, mall, train station, etc.

The US position here was supported by a resolution by the U.N Security Council, which voted 12 to 1 that the Hussein Regime was in violation of international law concerning the production, use, and distribution of chemical weapons (Syria abstained, hence the "1"). If you are in doubt, look it up. That, or try and figure out how else Saddam could gas thousands of Kurds - what do you think that Saddam did, have them stuck in a non-ventilated air-tight room with Mr. Shenkman for a couple of hours???

Going back to the U.N. Along with Amnesty International, the United Nations found the Saddam Regime in egregious violation of Human Rights Treatises. However, when it came to doing anything about it, the U.N was to busy passing resolutions against Israel - last year alone, for example, they managed to pass 13 against the Jewish state, out of a total of 15 total for the entire year. So we are supposed to rely on an international organization such as this to stop rogue states such as Iraq from developing, proliferating, and possibly using WMDs, when it is to busy passing 86.67 percent of its Human Rights Resolutions against the state of Israel? Hmm, sounds reliable and trustworthy...but then again, Kofi Annan, his son, and several member states were not toooo busy to take bribes from Saddam over the years....

Yes, most Americans are not always totally informed of the facts. Yes, most do not have the inclination, nor the time, to go and research deeply political issues. However, by and large, most Americans are practical. They know what people like Saddam are about, they see the weakness and/or selfßinterest of our "allies" (I live in Europe myself, so I can agree with this first hand), and are thus more likely to rely on our government and what it has to say then by some pretensious journalist who has all the time in the world to sit back and tell us how stupid we are.

Thank you.

A proud American living Overseas.


J. Feuerbach - 6/4/2008

Sorry, my college education doesn't allow me to read critically, just to jump to conclusions. I'm also infected...


R.R. Hamilton - 6/4/2008

For showing the reading skills necessary to convert "a flagship state university" to "a community college" ... Here's your sign!


J. Feuerbach - 6/4/2008

Thank you for sharing. I wasn't aware that community colleges gave refunds to their students... I'll have to trust you on this one.


J. Feuerbach - 6/4/2008

I'm quite impressed with your cognitive abilities. Question? Has college somewhat decreased them? However, I'm not saying what you are saying I'm saying. I'm saying that the consequences of having attended college won't go away but will stay with you forever. Reading your posts, I realize that you not only have the unfortunate antibodies but full-blown AIDS, figuratively speaking...


R.R. Hamilton - 6/3/2008

You seem to be inviting me to chop up this article, which I won't do for you. But just to prove I can walk the walk and not just talk the talk, I will chop up the first paragraph of the article.

"Just a few years ago we had polls indicating that the American public knew so little about foreign affairs that they believed that Saddam Hussein was behind 9-11. According to a Washington Post poll in September 2003--6 months after the war began--70 percent remained under this delusion."

First, the poll was August 2003, not September, and the pertinent figure is 69, not 70, percent. See here. But this is shooting small fish in a large barrel.

"It wasn't entirely the voters' fault, of course. The Bush administration, in collusion with some media outlets, had repeatedly dropped hints that Saddam was behind the 2001 attack."

Fortunately, the same poll was done at four different times -- 9/13/2001, 10/24/2002, 2/6/2003, and 8/11/2003. Immediately after the 9/11 attack, the percentage of Americans who thought Saddam was either "very likely" or "somewhat likely" to have been "involved" (there's a very elastic term) in the 9/11 attack was 78. This figure dropped slowly but steadily through the next three polls, finishing at 69 by August, 2003. Coupled with an even faster rise in the number of people who had serious doubts about Saddam's involvement in 9/11, the ratio of believers to disbelievers dropped from 13 to 2 in 2001 to 5 to 2 in 2003.

What can we learn from this? First, two days after 9/11, Americans by a 13 to 2 ratio thought our most powerful enemy in the world was "involved in" the attacks. That was reasonable -- initially most Americans thought the Nazis were behind Pearl Harbor, too. (In fact, Saddam did act slightly more happy to hear about 9/11 than Hitler was to hear of Pearl Harbor.) Second, any "Bush administration hints" designed to strengthen this suspicion apparently fell on deaf hears as the proportion of believers fell steadily over the next two years. Even during the "run-up to war" in the last months of 2002 and the first months of 2003 -- when according to the chattering classes' view that Bush was "hyping the links between Saddam and 9/11" -- the poll numbers showed essentially no change.

So, Mr. Shenkman has already failed to make a persuasive case that the evil Bushies and their media lackeys played on the native stupidity of Americans to make so many of them suspect that Saddam was involved with the 9/11 attacks. He doesn't help his first paragraph's credibility with its ending.

"But the facts were widely available and by September [sic] 2003 there was no excuse for failing to have grasped the truth about the absence of a link between al Qaeda and Saddam. Anyone paying attention knew that the government had used fear and misinformation in order to attract support for the war against Iraq."

In his first sentence, he makes a sly but wrongful substitution of "9/11" with "al Qaeda". It's as though he thinks he can convince us that once it has been shown that there was "no Hitler-Pearl Harbor link", it necessary follows that there was "no Hitler-Japan link". In his second, he says the "government used fear and misinformation". It's almost a wonder that he didn't claim this was the first time in history that a government had done such a dastardly thing. In the second sentence, he substitutes "Saddam" for "Iraq", as if Bush hadn't made the war pointedly about Saddam alone by offering to call off the whole thing if Saddam would only go into exile.

In all, Mr. Shenkman displays the anti-Bush elite's idee fixe that the Republicans have a mind-control ray-gun that they aim at hapless American rubes for their nefarious purposes. This notion that there are only the super-smart and the super-dumb prevents so many "intellectuals" to see that complicated questions often do have fairly simple answers.

That's the view from here.

RRH


R.R. Hamilton - 6/3/2008

So are you saying that my going to college is like having "unprotected sex with a whore"? And that it "infected [me] with HIV"? And now I am "transmitting the virus to others"?

At least your analogy provides a new, if disturbing, mental impression of professors. And of you, as well.


R.R. Hamilton - 6/3/2008

Mr. Shenkman could have done us a service if he had exposed the real lie that led us into the Kosovo War -- that we went "to stop a genocide".

This is a lie that is still believed -- 10 years on -- by probably 90% of the public.


R.R. Hamilton - 6/3/2008

Mr. Shenkman could have done us a service if he had exposed the real lie that led us into the Kosovo War -- that we went "to stop a genocide".

This is a lie that is still believed -- 10 years on -- by probably 90% of the public.


R.R. Hamilton - 6/3/2008

This is actually funny, because I did get a refund.

Apparently I was the first and probably only student to figure out how to get his full tuition at a flagship state university fully refunded after graduation. The state has now changed the law so that I will probably be the last to be able to do so. But thanks for the memories! :)

Btw, I didn't learn in school how to get my tuition refunded. Funny the things they don't teach you.


R.R. Hamilton - 6/3/2008

So are you saying that my going to college is like having "unprotected sex with a whore"? And that it "infected [me] with HIV"? And now I am "transmitting the virus to others"?

At least your analogy provides a new, if disturbing, mental impression of professors. And of you, as well.


R.R. Hamilton - 6/3/2008

You seem to be inviting me to chop up this article, which I won't do for you. But just to prove I can walk the walk and not just talk the talk, I will chop up the first paragraph of the article.

"Just a few years ago we had polls indicating that the American public knew so little about foreign affairs that they believed that Saddam Hussein was behind 9-11. According to a Washington Post poll in September 2003--6 months after the war began--70 percent remained under this delusion."

First, the poll was August 2003, not September, and the pertinent figure is 69, not 70, percent. See here. But this is shooting small fish in a large barrel.

"It wasn't entirely the voters' fault, of course. The Bush administration, in collusion with some media outlets, had repeatedly dropped hints that Saddam was behind the 2001 attack."

Fortunately, the same poll was done at four different times -- 9/13/2001, 10/24/2002, 2/6/2003, and 8/11/2003. Immediately after the 9/11 attack, the percentage of Americans who thought Saddam was either "very likely" or "somewhat likely" to have been "involved" (there's a very elastic term) in the 9/11 attack was 78. This figure dropped slowly but steadily through the next three polls, finishing at 69 by August, 2003. Coupled with an even faster rise in the number of people who had serious doubts about Saddam's involvement in 9/11, the ratio of believers to disbelievers dropped from 13 to 2 in 2001 to 5 to 2 in 2003.

What can we learn from this? First, two days after 9/11, Americans by a 13 to 2 ratio thought our most powerful enemy in the world was "involved in" the attacks. That was reasonable -- initially most Americans thought the Nazis were behind Pearl Harbor, too. (In fact, Saddam did act slightly more happy to hear about 9/11 than Hitler was to hear of Pearl Harbor.) Second, any "Bush administration hints" designed to strengthen this suspicion apparently fell on deaf hears as the proportion of believers fell steadily over the next two years. Even during the "run-up to war" in the last months of 2002 and the first months of 2003 -- when according to the chattering classes' view that Bush was "hyping the links between Saddam and 9/11" -- the poll numbers showed essentially no change.

So, Mr. Shenkman has already failed to make a persuasive case that the evil Bushies and their media lackeys played on the native stupidity of Americans to make so many of them suspect that Saddam was involved with the 9/11 attacks. He doesn't help his first paragraph's credibility with its ending.

"But the facts were widely available and by September [sic] 2003 there was no excuse for failing to have grasped the truth about the absence of a link between al Qaeda and Saddam. Anyone paying attention knew that the government had used fear and misinformation in order to attract support for the war against Iraq."

In his first sentence, he makes a sly but wrongful substitution of "9/11" with "al Qaeda". It's as though he thinks he can convince us that once it has been shown that there was "no Hitler-Pearl Harbor link", it necessary follows that there was "no Hitler-Japan link". In his second, he says the "government used fear and misinformation". It's almost a wonder that he didn't claim this was the first time in history that a government had done such a dastardly thing. In the second sentence, he substitutes "Saddam" for "Iraq", as if Bush hadn't made the war pointedly about Saddam alone by offering to call off the whole thing if Saddam would only go into exile.

In all, Mr. Shenkman displays the anti-Bush elite's idee fixe that the Republicans have a mind-control ray-gun that they aim at hapless American rubes for their nefarious purposes. This notion that there are only the super-smart and the super-dumb prevents so many "intellectuals" to see that complicated questions often do have fairly simple answers.

That's the view from here.

RRH


J. Feuerbach - 6/3/2008

It's like having unprotected sex with a whore and becoming infected with HIV, and then going back to the whore to demand a refund. She might give you back the money out of pity (make sure there's no pimp involved) but who is the one screwed for life? Now, if you do have HIV, you are capable of transmitting the virus to others, whether or not you have developed antibodies... That's exactly what you are doing... metaphorically speaking, of course!


R.R. Hamilton - 6/3/2008

This is actually funny, because I did get a refund.

Apparently I was the first and probably only student to figure out how to get his full tuition at a flagship state university fully refunded after graduation. The state has now changed the law so that I will probably be the last to be able to do so. But thanks for the memories! :)

Btw, I didn't learn in school how to get my tuition refunded. Funny the things they don't teach you.


J. Feuerbach - 6/3/2008

Maybe the school you attended has a refund policy...


R.R. Hamilton - 6/3/2008

... Never let school interfere with your education.


J. Feuerbach - 6/2/2008

And a half-smart man once stated that he regretted having dropped out of school...


Andrew D. Todd - 6/2/2008

Here is something relevant:

http://buggieboy.blogspot.com/2008/05/chain-of-blame.html

I should explain that "Buggieboy" is run by J. D. Henderson, who was Phil Carter's colleague on the Intel Dump blogsite. When Carter got taken into the Washington Post blog group,

http://blog.washingtonpost.com/inteldump/

Henderson restarted his own blogsite.

http://buggieboy.blogspot.com/


Randll Reese Besch - 6/2/2008

Well it is easy to say but as to backing it up is another matter.You,RRH haven't defined your terms merely moved from an anecdote to a criticism of HHN. Slick but ultimately of no value.

Most people are not just uninformed they are falsely informed. Which is a dangerous difference. Most people do not want to spend the time searching the internet and less accessible magazines and radio shows to have information outside of the propoganda sphere that blitzes the easy listening crowd.
Most do not want to take the time to dig for the data. They shouldn't have to but it is necessary to have even the correct idea of what is going on in the world. Taking the easy route is par for most. My mother was one of those 33% about BHO 'Islamicism,' then she complimented me for correcting her. I told her that I shouldn't have to! Case in point.


R.R. Hamilton - 6/2/2008

My high-school dropout father used to say there was nothing more dangerous than a half-smart man, and that's what this site -- and the modern academy -- seems full of.


R.R. Hamilton - 6/2/2008

Where's he "wrong"? State your facts, not your opinions -- i.e., don't say, "The Iraqi government is weak"; use facts to make your case.


- 6/1/2008

The problem with the statement you comment is its unfalsifiability. I don't think that it has to do with levels of smartness but with our collective world-view (another unfalsifiable concept). In the context of the "American Creed," the invasion of Iraq had nothing to do with knowledge or ignorance. We did it because it was our national right, duty and destiny to spread democracy and freedom in the world.


Maarja - 5/31/2008

If your question was written from the perspective of when and how historians might find out the answers to questions of the sort you raise, this detailed explanation might help. Some day unbiased, objective historians may be interested in examining how and why events unfolded as they did.

The work of releasing government records is done by employees of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). The President and his advisors, as creators of the records, are stakeholders in the process. So too are historians.

The Federal Computer Week recently ran an article about NARA’s role (aired out also at a recent hearing) so this actually is a good time for me to ask, how do historians see that role. See
http://www.fcw.com/online/news/152578-1.html with followup at
http://www.fcw.com/blogs/Letters/152697-1.html Do the historians who read HNN agree with those who, as the article notes, say NARA has not been forceful enough? Or do they think it is doing the best it can, given the complications of its placement within the government?

To the extent the deliberations of the type you raise in your question may have been captured in government records, when and how historians can access them depends on their type and status. As you probably know, some records created within the White House fall under the Presidential Records Act (PRA) and some fall under the Federal Records Act (FRA). Various news outlets have done a pretty good job over the last 15 years of explaining why administrations have sought to change the designations and the impact of that on researchers.

PRA materials cannot be accessed by the Freedom of Information Act while a President still is in office. They may be requested by researchers starting 5 years after a President leaves office. For 12 years, NARA applies restrictions to the records based on an agreement worked out with the former President. After 12 years, access is controlled by Freedom of Information Act exemptions, except for the one dealing with predecisional advice exchanged by the President and his advisors.

After the 12 year period, NARA may start marking such records for release, if its archivists determine that national security or privacy restrictions do not apply. That does not mean historians automatically gain access to them at that point. Courts generally have found that the confidences of higher office erode over time, e.g., Nixon v. Administrator of General Services, 433 U.S. 451 (1977). However, they also have recognized the former and incumbent President’s Constitutional right to claim privilege over certain communications.

As a result, if the records reflect deliberations among a President and his advisors, the former President has the right to claim communications privilege over materials NARA proposes to release. On paper, he and his representatives are supposed to do this officially at the time that NARA marks something for opening, rather than pressuring the archivists to substitute his judgement for theirs earlier, during their screening of records.

Essentially, the official process calls for the former President to be a stand up guy and to take responsibility for blocking disclosure. He is supposed to be willing to tell historians, “The archivists marked this for disclosure to you but I have decided to assert privilege and withhold it from you.” Such withholding is entirely within a former President’s rights, of course. The communications privilege is a Constitutional one.

The statutes and regulations posit a clean environment where these sorts of things play out with integrity, according to law. However, if you’ve read my past articles about NARA’s inability to release the statutory “full truth” about Watergate while Richard Nixon was alive—a process in which I played a part as a NARA employee--you have some sense of how complicated this can get in reality.

Where I once thought scholars might be interested how these things play out, and offer their views as stakeholders, I no longer think that is the case. Debating these issues requires understanding of how government records are created, preserved, and accessed. It also requires the ability to reflect on the psychology of disclosure. And thinking about whether historians make it easier or harder for the National Archives to do its job. That such records now mostly are electronic complicates matters greatly.

As noted in my other posts here under Rick Shenkman’s article, I think historians largely are too busy to educate themselves about what is involved. People mostly read what they need to get by in their particular jobs, anything else is extra and dependent on the amount of leisure time they have. I suspect most people are busy and skip over articles on HNN that address these complicated issues. As a result, while historians are nominal stakeholders in the process of opening records, the principal players will continue to be the former President, his associates, and federal employees (archivists, lawyers).

Still, in case anyone still is reading this post (yes, I know we’re in a sound bite age where attention spans quickly wander), I’ll add a few more notes. Official records created by federal departments and agencies fall under the FRA. When they are transferred to NARA depends on agreements worked out through departmental/agency offices of records management. Records managers are the officials at federal departments and agencies who determine which federal records go to NARA because they have permanent value and which are temporary and can be destroyed within the creating organization.

NARA announced this past April that it had signed an agreement with one agency, permitting transfer of its historical, permanent records to the Archives when they are 50 years old. That is atypical and reflects unusual circumstances. In the past, the customary transfer time has been 20-30 years.

Once NARA receives FRA administered records, it must screen them to see what can be released and what requires restriction. For a good description of how this works for formerly classified records, see
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/01/15/AR2007011501216.html?referrer=emailarticle
My late sister worked with or trained several of the people mentioned in that article.

So, some answers on events of the past 8 years may be forthcoming at some point for objective historians to examine. But acquiring historical insights does not occur through an easy or automatic process, things don’t just fall into the laps of outside researchers.


Dan Stewart - 5/30/2008

I don't disagree that a quick war is what the administration may have had in mind, but just as with Iraqi WMD, that was not necessarily the consensus of informed commenters on the matter.

Many commentators, in newspapers, political magazines and technical publications, forcefully and persuasively argued that this would not be the case. Military strategists specifically pointed to the 1) the rejection of U.S. troops in Iraq by the local population (as opposed to “greeting us with flowers”) and 2) the overwhelming likelihood of a prolonged 4G war.

So, one is compelled to ask, from where did the administration’s expectation to “roll up a quick victory in Iraq” derive?—and was it a well founded expectation?

It reminds me of immediately after the release of the NEI on Iran’s nuclear weapons program (cessation thereof), Bush remarked that he disagreed and had a different opinion. Okay, from where did he derive his contrary opinion and was it well founded.

OR: Was the position on a quick Iraq war, WMD, and differing opinion on Iran just propaganda that no one leading the administration actually believed.



Maarja - 5/27/2008

In referring to archives, I did not mean, as Mr. Stewart may have assumed, something easy, such as how the National Archives best can serve scholars (or their hired research assistants). The focus of everything I've written here on HNN since 2004 has been the reverse of that, something much harder to achieve -- how scholars can best serve the National Archives, as informed advocates. If they want to be effective advocates on behalf of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), it's very important for scholars to know how governmental and private sector components fit together. And what goes into the creation, deletion, preservation, disclosure, or withholding of records.

I don't want Rick Shenkman to get angry at me. I may be on dangerous ground in pointing out what I'm about to describe. But it illustrates why it matters where people get their news. Rick focuses in his article on how voters form what he describes as misperceptions. I’ve countered that knowing how that occurs is difficult to discern and that busy people may only glance at headlines. But errors occur even on HNN, a site which apparently operates with good intentions. Even with that caveat, I realize I take a risk in mentioning an area where HNN faltered when one of its staff posted a news story last week.

Still, I’ll go ahead, because what I describe below relates to the issues of busy readers who glance at headlines. Unfortunately, choices made in reporting the news or even in choosing a headline can confuse readers. HNN showed that with a story about SMU last week.

Last week several sites, including this one, reported a story about SMU, future site of the George W. Bush Presidential Library. In addition to housing the government administered Library (which also includes a museum component), SMU also will house the separate, private sector Bush Institute.

A story posted on HNN in Breaking News last week carried the headline "SMU May Have Fight on Its Hands Over Bush Library." But no such fight exists. Rather, there is no opposition to the Library, now, from the source mentioned. The opposition referred to in the linked email now reportedly centers on the private sector Bush institute. That is a separate entity from the Library.

Initially, in late 2006, some scholars in Texas (notably at the Perkins School of Theology at SMU) opposed the governmental Presidential Library but they have modified their stance and reportedly take a more nuanced view now. Yet in May 2008, someone put the wrong headline on this here at HNN, implying the opposition is to the library. And to date, no editor has corrected it.

Rick Shenkman refers in his article to how voters sometimes dip into the news and how they may form and hold on to misperceptions. But there is an illustration right here on HNN of how challenging it is for web sites to report complicated stories -- and how a poor choice of words in a headline can mislead a reader who only glances at headlines.

While HNN left in place the original headline, others who picked up the story with a misleading headline (using the term library) have run corrections. If you look at
http://www.texasmonthly.com/blogs/burkablog/?p=932
you can see that the writer of the Texas Monthly site’s blog, Paul Burka, quickly posted a correction to a similar piece last week. Burka noted in bolded text, "The opposition no longer opposes the library and museum."

Burka also covered the SMU Bush institute story at
http://www.texasmonthly.com/blogs/burkablog/?p=936
and
http://www.texasmonthly.com/blogs/burkablog/?p=934

That's three posts by Burka at Texasmonthly on the SMU story within two days last week. Several people posted comments, including at least two faculty members.

There may be readers here on HNN who may have seen the banner headline on the story posted here, "SMU May Have Fight on its Hands Over Bush Library." If they never clicked on the story or read the comments I posted there, they might not know the focus of the reported opposition is the private institute, not the government administered library. (Evidently, no one with the authority to post a correction looked at the comment I posted last week, asking for a correction.)

If it's so easy on a history website for a staff member to use the wrong term in a headline for a story about a complicated subject, maybe it's easy for some voters to be confused about the current events they see described in traditional print headlines, also.

In this case, thanks to Burka's correction and follow up stories, readers of Burkas's blog have more information on where the matter stands at SMU than do HNN's readers. But not everyone has time to look at all the sites that cover a story. I doubt many HNN readers also read Burka’s Texas news centered blog.


Maarja - 5/27/2008

To know what I meant in my analogy, you would have had to have read Ms. Fuchs's article, Mr. Rushay's article, my articles, and associated comments. Which, if you're referring solely to paying someone to do research in archival institution on behalf of a scholar, I'm afraid only proves my point. That's an issue I've never discussed in my articles, in 2004 or 2007, nor did Rushay or Fuchs in their articles in 2007 and 2008.


Maarja - 5/27/2008

I don't see how a scholar could pay someone to speak on his or her behalf any more than a voter could pay someone to cast his vote for himself or herself. In my analogy, I'm not talking about something simple, such as doing research (the "me" approach to scholarship). I'm talking about acting as a well informed and therefore as an effective stakeholder. (Other stakeholders include the creators of records in the White House, their lawyers, officials in the Department of Justice who represent Presidential interests, etc.)

I'm talking about educating oneself so as to be an effective advocate on behalf of an institution, the National Archives, which receives a lot of pressure from stakeholders other than scholars. And to speaking out in forums where IT people, records managers and others are making decisions, now, about records scholars hope will exist, later.

Could you expound on how a scholar could pay someone else to participate on his/her behalf in a records management or archivists listserv in order to advocate on behalf of preservation and access to electronic records? Or to pay someone else to write an op ed about E.O. 13233 and the transition from private to public control of Presidential records? Unless something has really changed in historical scholarship since I was in grad school during the 1970s, these are areas in which one can act as a well informed advocate only by taking the time to educate oneself.


Dan Stewart - 5/27/2008



Wow, where does one begin.

This guy is a classic example of someone who's drank the cool-aid, as differentiated from the ignorant American voter.

This guy's probably not ignorant at all, he’s an ideologue. Sure, he probably gets a lot of his "news" from Fox, so his facts are consistently wrong, but he probably reads as well--the extreme Right fringe authors and titles, so he’s also delusional.

No, he's not ignorant, he's just wrong and truly dangerous.


Dan Stewart - 5/27/2008

I have to say that Maarja's analogy seems a bit off point. While no doubt accessing archives is important to historians, I'm not so sure that it's the perfect analogy to the issue at hand -- voter ignorance.

Seems one is professionally advisable (but you can always pay someone else to figure it out), the other seems to be a fundamental obligation of citizenship and essential to the quality of one's life.


Dan Stewart - 5/27/2008

"We don't have smart voters in this country. We should stop pretending that we do."

Truer words have never been spoken. Reminds me of:

"Nobody has ever gone broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public."

The ignorance of the American public becomes even more glaring when one leaves the U.S. on foreign travel. It’s nothing short of remarkable just how uninformed U.S. folks appear when juxtaposed against other countries’ citizens (especially Europe and Asia).

It’s almost as if the American culture itself is all about dumbing thing down.


Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 5/26/2008

It seemed to me, listening to General Petraeus last week, that victory in Iraq IS "just around the corner," and that we are now engaged in what should be styled mopping up activities. Your essay has the aspect of having been written 18 months ago... The Baghdad government today is much stronger than ever before, and appears to be pointing the country toward a very prosperous and bright future. Our efforts in Iraq are bearing fruit, despite all the sabotage at home, and the people you herein call "stupid" are getting the last laugh. It's absolutely astonishing you would print this false perspective on Iraq at the end of May in 2008. Somebody needs to tell Juan Cole that we won, that the neocons were basically right, and a democratic island has been planted in Mesopotamia for all its despotic neighbors to see, envy, and copy.


Maarja - 5/26/2008

Hi, Rick, actually, I did click on the links before I posted. I have no desire to undermine your thesis, that's not my point. Apparently, I just look at some of the issues, including the usefulness or fairness of calling Americans stupid, differently than you do.

I believe it is very difficult to try to dissect why people say they are interested in something and why they act as they do. No one has clicked on my shrinkster link, according to the tracker. But the discussion there of reconciling dissonance actually is interesting, at least to me. I don't agree with everything the author says but the article did make me think.

It seems my analogy -- why historians won't make the effort to educate themselves about access to records, an ongoing issue of importance to their work -- has no resonance here for you. But I stand by it.

I'll leave it at that. I have no desire to get into an argument with you.

Good luck!


HNN - 5/26/2008

Maarja,

At the top of this blog I list my five-part definition of stupidity. I defined the word so readers know what I am thinking about when I use this word.

As you can see the first definition relates to ignorance. Gross ignorance -- say, insisting several years into the Iraq War that Saddam was behind 9-11 (even after the 9-11 Commission AND President Bush denied it) -- is an example.

If we do not come to terms with the gross ignorance of millions of voters we will not begin to have the conversation we need to to rectify the situation.

It is pointless to get hung up on the word stupidity. What I am trying to emphasize is that gross ignorance has led to disastrous consequences.


EDWARD GEORGE WHITE - 5/26/2008

I believe you have put the problem in perspective. Americans are too embarased to admit they are clueless about foreign policy, which of course includes war. You would think after they offer up their sons and daughters to a President who lies, put their families at risk with the environment, and get overtaxed in comparison to the wealthy, they would learn. Stupid is the correct word. All is politics and foreign policy is a key part.


Maarja - 5/26/2008

Rick, here's another way of looking at my analogy of voters/complex issues and scholars/archival issues. When the story broke on HNN in January 2007 that there was opposition to SMU being the site of the GWB Presidential Library, I looked to see if any historians, other than I, would comment on the initial blog entry on HNN which picked up Paul Burka's story in Texas Monthly. I had, after all, written several times about Presidential records, both in my own article in 2004 on HNN on Allen Weinstein's nomination as U.S. Archivist and in comments posted under articles and blog posts written by others.

I was interested to see if anyone on HNN would comment along the lines of, "since we've had some glimpses from a former insider into the difficulties NARA faced with the Nixon materials, the issues at Presidential Libraries would appear to center on the difficult and ongoing transition from private to statutory public control of White House records. What can we as scholars do to help the process?" No one did.

In other words, there was no one to carry that message here on HNN when the SMU story broke. I guessed from that that few scholars had read what I had written about NARA starting in 2004.

I then submitted more articles about NARA and Presidential Libraries, including "Look Before You Leap into Presidential Libraries," "When Archivists Deal with Power Players" and "How Hard Is the Job of the Nixon Archivists: You Decide." You were kind enough to post all three on HNN in 2007. But my general sense from looking at the response to later articles that you've posted here, such as the ones by archivist Sam Rushay and by lawyer Meredith Fuchs, is that archival issues are so complicated, most readers shy away from them.

My guess is that many scholars have a general, vague sense that "what happens to White House records is important." If they were polled, they probably would say they cared about such issues. But they don't seem to have the time to delve into the issues in depth so as to act as effective advocates. Or to comment knowledgeably on articles such as the one posted by Meredith Fuchs last week. How is that different from voters, who may answer poll questions by saying issues are important, but whose lives are so busy that they do not or cannot set aside the time to educate themselves about issues they say matter to them?

It would be wrong to sneer at the busy scholars who don't read articles about electronic record keeping; the loss of White House email; the role of records management in preserving records; the role of archivists in opening them; the difficult balancing tests that Allen Weinstein's subordinates must apply; why Weinstein's director of information security oversight resigned after tangling with the Office of the Vice President, etc. If I challenged HNN's readers to thread together and effectively and thoughtfully present the issues I just listed, I doubt anyone would take me up on it. No one seems to be following them closely enough to do so.

Perhaps it is unfair to sneer at voters, also.


Maarja - 5/26/2008

Rick, you ask "If you truly think Americans are smart voters why then do you think our politics are often so dumb?" You actually do not know what I think of American voters. I haven't said what I think. I only said that there is a difference between being ill informed and being stupid. I think many scholars are ill informed on issues related to Presidential Libraries. That doesn't mean I think they are stupid.

Some scholars have admitted they just don't have time to educate themselves on archival issues sufficiently to speak up on them. Others don't take the time to read the essays and lengthy comments I post on HNN. Or long articles about White House records such as the one Meredith Fuchs posted here last week.

The same is true with many voters and other issues. Just as busy voters dip into issues to the extent they feel able, so too do many scholars. Voters and scholars both sometimes err in their perceptions or miss out on context.

The link between the two lies in the fact that historians are trained to interpret events. So they could have some value to voters in terms of educating them as to the type of context Tom Fenton says is missing in TV news. But to do that they have to project an aura of fairness and objectivity.


HNN - 5/26/2008

Hi Maarja,

My piece doesn't focus on Americans in general, but voters in particular. My point is that in their capacity as voters, Americans aren't smart. They don't know much about politics, don't seek out sources of information when making political decisions, and are easily misled by conniving pols.

The same voter who is indifferent to politics may be a whiz at rocket science. But when they enter the voting booth it is their knowledge of politics that counts, not rocket science (except to the extent that knowledge of science is helpful in making some political decisions).

If you truly think Americans are smart voters why then do you think our politics are often so dumb?

I submit that if the voters were smart our politics would be smart.



Maarja - 5/26/2008

A quick addition to the hastily composed post above. (Yes, sorry, I see that I made some mistakes, draw should have been written as draws, and so forth.) It's the Memorial Day holiday and although I'm at home, I'm juggling various household tasks indoors and out.

I see a connection between historians and voters and Presidential Libraries. Historians interpret past events. They may face a tough sell with some readers if they cannot project objectivity. The advent of the blogosphere and the temptation to comment on current events now presents great challenges to some historians. The choices historians make as they comment on current events may affect how voters perceive their later assessments of Presidents. I addressed this in passing on HNN in my e-mail submission for a symposium on Arthur Schlesinger in 2007. See
http://hnn.us/blogs/entries/36343.html


Maarja - 5/26/2008

Many thanks for your very interesting comments, Dr. Bornet. You lived in a trailer with your wife and a dog, that's interesting. There have been debates in archival circles as to whether it would be better to have a single, central repository for Presidential records or to continue with the geographically scattered libraries we now have. Both options have their advantages and disadvantages.

You're right, of course, that these things look different to Presidents, to historians, to archivists, and to the towns that depend on the tourism that the museum component of Presidential Libraries draw.

The Presidential Libraries that you used were what archivists refer to as donor-restricted. Libraries established for Presidents starting with Ronald Reagan operate differently, as access to the records in them is through the Freedom of Information Act.

Until 1974, a President's White House records were considered by custom to be personal property. The materials at the Hoover, FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson Presidential Libraries are donor restricted. Although created by government employees in the White House, on government time, at taxpayer expense, they were treated as a President's personal property.

Not so the records of Nixon and of Presidents starting with Ronald Reagan. The Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act (1974) and the Presidential Records Act (1978) asserted governmental control of them. And therein lies the problem for archivists and historians alike. On paper, there is an expectation that the disclosable portions of records will be opened under law. But what former President wouldn't look longingly back at the Kennedys or at LBJ and other Presidents who were able to exert great control over what the public would see and when? I've found it very challenging to get scholars to consider this and to get them to think about how they could encourage access at the post-Watergate facilities, rather than adding to the temptation to wall off of records.

I'm glad to hear you made good use of Presidential records in your work. As an historian and a former archivist, I'm a member of the Society of American Archivists. I will look for your past article in its publication, the American Archivist. Thanks again for sharing your very interesting experiences and perceptions.

Maarja Krusten


vaughn davis bornet - 5/26/2008

I used my first presidential library in 1952. For two weeks I lived at the Poughkeepsie YMCA and worked at the then new Franklin D. Roosevelt Library. In 1976 I worked for a time at three of the libraries (Hoover, Eisenhower, and Truman) on a possible book about the libraries, stressing origins and financing. Later, I used Hoover and Johnson very heavily. (Often my wife, dog, and I lived in a travel trailer.)

All who think seriously about these great structures and their contents, I think, need to see clearly the coming collaboration between private individuals and groups, as well as the special problems faced by the federal authorities (National Archives).

The mere Place, that is, the location, isn't all that vital. Oh, the universdity thinks it is--and it is, for that entity--and the nearby town licks its chops, of course. Convenience to the President is always a consideration, for he fancies that he will luxuriate there, whilst tea is being served and friends murmer happily. And why not?

But if that Library is to be built, there must be a solid fund-raising committee, and rich friends of the Great Man, must be counted on to step forward. And it must be correctly assumed that the president's associates during his term(s) will indeed donate vast unexpurgated files.

When satisfied, it can be assumed that the Family will give up quantities of Objects of considerable value for permanent public viewing.

I am saying that everybody needs to be happy if the Library is going to be created as a viable project.

I am not contradicting anybody here; just trying to indicate the nature of the whole problem.

My candid views appeared in three bibliographies (E. E. Robinson, The Roosevelt Leadership; Robinson and Bornet, Herbert Hoover: President of the United States; and Bornet, The Presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson. I did three other essays on major archives: Labor (The Historian), Social Welfare (American Archivist), and RAND (in its archives).

It is easy to get detoured and upset at officialdom and/or the archival profession, but I have felt that a calm and yet eager attitude from researchers is far more helpful than getting in a premature uproar about "what is open to ME" at a given time. Plugging away in what is open, really listening to guidance that is carefully offered, and putting in the hours bring real results.

Archivists are not the enemy; and in time roadblocks can be surmounted.

Vaughn Davis Bornet




Maarja - 5/26/2008

Rick,

Interesting thesis but aren’t you overly harsh in your conclusion? Doesn’t much of what you describe relate to how people use their time?

Yes, television is not a great source of news. In his memoir,_Bad News: The Decline of Reporting, the Business of News, and the Danger to Us All_, former reporter Tom Fenton recounts how tv networks cut down on foreign news during the 1990s. These cutbacks resulted in a dumbing down of the news. This led to decreased levels of context for the brief snippets of foreign news viewers saw. See the transcript of Fenton’s interview on NPR at
http://www.onthemedia.org/transcripts/2005/03/04/04

You may be right that people sometimes craft answers to conform to what is expected (“yes, we want more information.”). But don’t you also have to take into account how and why people integrate opposing dynamics in their lives? Shankar Vedantam explains how some people reduce dissonance in one of his “Department of Human Behavior” columns in the Washington Post. See
http://shrinkster.com/yfd
It seems to me that once your start trying to figure out why people say what they do, you enter some tricky territory.

Do you really believe the U.S. does not have “smart” voters? Or do you mean voters are not as “well-informed” as you would like them to be? There are a lot of people in this country who are smart within their chosen professions, very capable in the way that they raise their families, but who spend little or no time watching tv or reading newspapers, news websites, blogs. Does that make them stupid? Or is it a reflection of how they spend their limited "leisure" time?

I’ve seen this on a smaller scale with issues I follow closely. I find that very few scholars write knowledgeably about access to Presidential and federal records. Some who do make mistakes -- I once saw a blogger confuse two different professions, archivist and records manager. (A natural mistake, but a mistake, nonetheless.) Others appear to overlook key factors that can affect the National Archives or Presidential records. That doesn’t mean they are “not smart,” only that they haven’t taken the time to delve into the issues deeply enough.

When Professor Stanley Fish wrote in the New York Times on January 25, 2007 about protests at SMU over a proposed Bush institute and library, he discussed the academic environment. See http://fish.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/01/21/all-the-presidents-libraries/
But he never mentioned Executive Order 13233 of November 2001 or the Constitutionally based communications privilege a former President may apply to records the Archives marks for opening.

Professor Fish never looked at why it might be a challenge to release government records in the first place. And what might affect the interaction between a powerful creator of an historical record and those charged with screening them for public disclosure. And what scholars could do to encourage integrity in the process of opening White House files.

Anyone who had the time to read only Fish's column, and not all the comments that were posted, would have missed out on some of the factors that might affect operation of a Bush Presidential Library.

Confusion can be difficult to overcome. Just this past week, HNN posted in its Breaking News section a news article with the headline “SMU May Have Fight on Its Hands Over Bush Library.” (See http://hnn.us/roundup/comments/50649.html )
According to the email that triggered the headline, the controversy seems to center more on a proposed private sector institute at SMU to be supported by the Bush Foundation, than on a public sector entity, the National Archives-administered Presidential Library. (The petition refers to a museum, library and institute.) If that is the case, a more accurate headline would have been, “SMU May Have Fight on its Hands Over Bush facility.”

Perhaps some voters find themselves in a similar situation as Professor Fish, making judgments based on a general sense of things, rather than deep knowledge based on hours of focused study. At least to me, the reasons why people hold the perceptions they do seem too varied and complex to warrant calling U.S. voters stupid.


HNN - 5/26/2008

Every book I have read about the war makes it absolutely clear that the administration expected the conflict in Iraq to last just a few months. As things unravelled it eventually dawned on officials that they had a mess on their hands.

Bush indeed thought the war against terrorism--a ridiculously apocalyptic enemy of dubious definition (terrorism is a tactic)--would last a long time. But he expected to roll up a quick victory in Iraq.


Don - 5/26/2008

"President Byush gambled that we would win the war quickly.

I find no reason Bush wants this war over, it is working fine for him. Look at Chenneys own comments in 1994 on youtube, duh?

http://751ranknfile.blogspot.com/2008/04/why-are-we-so-stupid.html

and here: http://georgewashington.blogspot.com/2008/04/evidence-builds-that-continuity-of.html#comments

Type in Dick Chenney 1994 on youtube search and watch these prophetic words. These are no accidents in Washington. Our rights to freedom will we surrender as Americans only when under threat. NEVER Give up your rights, once gone you may not get them back.