By Charles N. Davis
If your holiday shopping this season finds you in a bookstore, take a moment and do me a favor. Ask for the section on presidential history, and go take a peek.
You’ll find literally hundreds of works of presidential history, from scholarly tomes with hundreds of footnotes to the downright silly works on presidential pets.
Now, take a moment and imagine 25 years from now, and you’re looking for a nice, complete history of the Clinton or Bush presidency.
What you find could be disappointing. The content may look and feel like history, but it could be missing important context. The books won’t contain background or reference to personal papers and once-classified memos detailing West Wing intrigue that for more than 200 years made the nation’s presidential history come to life.
This hollow history of the presidency will haunt us unless we wake up and do something about a records-censoring executive order issued by President George W. Bush in November of 2001.
The order gave presidents the right to prevent the release of their presidential papers – forever.
It also allows a sitting president to block the release of a former president's records, even if that president doesn’t object to the public disclosure of his personal papers. To challenge action taken under the order, historians, journalists and ordinary citizens must seek redress in court.
Historians, who know that our history begets our future, are outraged, and Congress has responded, though slowly. The House passed legislation to nullify President Bush’s order by the veto-proof margin of 333-to-93, with 104 Republicans breaking Administration ranks.
That bill was also well on its way to passage in the Senate when, on Sept. 24, Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., objected to floor consideration of the measure, automatically holding up a vote. Despite repeated requests from historical, news media and open government organizations, Bunning has refused to state the reasons for his opposition, which amounts to an act of legislative hostage taking.
When the history of this sad spectacle is written, it will note that the Presidential Records Act of 1978 was gutted by the president and aided and abetted by the silence of Senator Bunning.
The Presidential Records Act assuring that presidential papers are public documents has an interesting history of its own. It emerged from the tattered remnants of Richard M. Nixon’s presidency in reaction to his power grab. The law asserted complete "ownership, possession, and control" of all Presidential and Vice-Presidential records by the National Archivist, who would make them available to the public 12 years after a president leaves office. The only exception is that if a former or incumbent president claims an exemption based on a "constitutionally based" executive privilege or continuing national security concern.
But that was during the Watergate era. Now, the Bush administration, using its powers of executive order, wants to write its own history. Future presidents, Republican or Democrat, will find that sort of control downright intoxicating.
If President Bush’s executive order is not overturned by Congress it will allow any president, their heirs, and – for the first time – the vice president and heirs, to deny the American people access to the full historical record of their administrations.
That is guaranteed to produce some tired pickings at your local bookstore in the near future. So press your congressmen and senators to step in and make sure that we know the complete story about our future presidents, not just the selected history they want us to know about.
Charles N. Davis is the executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, and a member of the Society of Professional Journalists FOI Committee.