Private vs. pub­lic

The Washington Times Weekly - - Letters To The Editor -

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

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