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.