Private vs. public
Regarding the article in the Nov. 19 edition titled “GOP issuing ‘Clinton library cards’ to spotlight records flap” (page 10), keep in mind that for 200 years, a president’s White House files were considered personal proper ty. Upon leaving office, he could screen them, keep what he wanted and burn the rest. Except for Richard Nixon, all the presidents from Herber t Hoover through Jimmy Carter donated portions of their files, with varying restrictions, to libraries administered by the National Archives.
The late Clement Vose, a professor of government at Wesleyan University, noted of the donor-restricted presidential libraries that they often set aside records dealing with contentious matters to allow “the passage of time to dim controversy” related to presidents.
Government ownership of a president’s official records is a relatively new concept. So, too, is the notion that the public can request access to them soon after the president leaves office. Under laws passed in the 1970s, Mr. Nixon’s records are government property, as are those of presidents holding office after 1981.
If the National Archives’ mission were easy, The Washington Times would not have written in 1994 of apparent disputes about “differing philosophies over access to government records” at the agency. Your editorial page had earlier that same year referred to “access to the personal, private papers of recent presidents, access that liberal activists have long sought but until now have been unable to gain”
As it turned out, work at the Reagan Presidential Library had triggered questions as to whether archivists could open official records that were statutorily releasable but that a former president wanted sealed. The National Archives' inspector general asserted that by law, the decision to release records lay with the Archives.
The National Archives faces many challenges, but outsiders often have painted them broadly in black and white. Having worked on screening the records of a president for whom I had voted (Mr. Nixon), I know why archivists must act objectively. That Mr. Nixon fought us doesn’t keep me from understanding the fear he might have felt at the revelations the law required. Unless you take into account human nature and the psychology of disclosure, you cannot understand what current laws ask of the nation’s recordkeeper. Maarja Krusten Former National Archives’ Nixon tapes archivist Arlington, Virginia