Whose History Is It, Anyway? The Public's or the Officials'?

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February 24, 2002

Whose History Is It, Anyway? The Public's or the Officials'?


EWSPAPERS may provide a rough draft of history, but archives are where the raw materials are stored. And so when politicians start messing around with public archives, historians and, of course, archivists can be counted on to rise up in arms.

Those who write history in this city were aghast when former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani in his final days in office decided more or less on his own to move the public records out of City Hall and into a private warehouse. Mr. Giuliani has since promised public access to these documents but that, his critics argue, is not enough. The issue, they say, is not only about who has access, but also about who controls that access.

"They are called public records because they are our public heritage," said Robert Sink, archivist for the Center for Jewish History who formerly worked at the New York Public Library, "and that heritage should be under public control and administration."

The legal question of who owns public records has not always been clear and, on the local level, many say the law is vague. But the idea that the public owns its government's papers is an old one, and was listed among the charges against King George in the Declaration of Independence.

"Public papers should be public property and, while the people who produced them have some rights, they have no moral claim to ownership," said Alan Brinkley, chairman of the history department at Columbia University. "These papers are the products of a public life, and the public has some rights, and posterity has some rights."

It would be hard to find a historian who disagreed with this and, until recently, politicians went along with this view, no matter what private qualms they might have had about letting the public peek into what they often think of as their business.

This default to openness was the legacy of Watergate, which gave Americans a glimpse of how far politicians would go to rearrange the historical record. The picture of Rose Mary Woods, twisted like a pretzel as she explained how she accidentally hit the "erase" button, became an icon of the Presidential Records Act, passed by Congress in 1978. That law assures that all presidential records except those exempted for reasons of national security or privacy become public 12 years after a president leaves office.

But attitudes have changed since the 1970's, a period regarded by many historians as the halcyon days of open government and freedom of information. Now, in an era of high anxiety about national security, notions like the public's "right to know," or the need for a transparent accounting of the public's business, are being challenged on local, state and federal levels.

"There was, in the 1970's, a real movement for openness," said Sean Wilentz, a professor of history at Princeton. "The political system really did reform itself, at the federal level, with attempts by Congress to open up and make campaign finance and policy debates more transparent.

"That current may have run its course," Professor Wilentz added. "It has been creeping up on us, but I think there is a steady diminution of that kind of openness."

In modern American history, President Franklin D. Roosevelt is cited as being the one who established the right of the public to claim ownership of a chief executive's files. The National Archives were created in 1934, during his first presidency.

Many say that tradition is now being eroded. "Sometimes, I worry that we are going back to the status quo ante when George Washington, without giving the matter a second thought, took his papers back to Mount Vernon," said Ron Chernow, a historian, who is working on a biography of Alexander Hamilton. "Hamilton, too, and other public officials automatically assumed that their official papers belonged to them and their descendants, and that they would form the basis of a biography that was invariably glowing and hagiographic."

MR. GIULIANI was not the first to nibble away at the concept of public control of public papers. In fact the first in recent years was President George W. Bush or rather Governor Bush, who, as he left office in Austin, Texas, in January 2001, arranged to move his records to his father's presidential library at Texas A & M University.

That does not remove them from public access, since all presidential libraries are under the authority of the National Archives. But it does create confusion over who "owns" the Bush gubernatorial legacy the state of Texas or the Bush Library; a crucial distinction given the state's liberal public information law. The matter is awaiting a ruling by the Texas attorney general.

But what has historians and archivists most upset is the executive order issued by the White House in November, which gives sitting presidents, acting together with a predecessor, the right to block the release of records of a prior administration.

To most experts, this literally upends the Presidential Records Act, by giving presidents veto power over what can or cannot be released. The White House's explanation was not particularly reassuring. "We thought it would be more appropriate to really give the primary responsibility regarding presidential records to the former president whose records they belong to," said White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales at a briefing for reporters.

The executive order is being challenged in court by Public Interest, a liberal public interest group, representing a list of associations of historians and scholars.

"What has happened is an act of extraordinary monarchy to say that he has a veto power over an act of Congress signed by a past president," said Blanche Wiesen Cook, author of a biography of Eleanor Roosevelt and also of "The Declassified Eisenhower," a 1981 book based on documents that had been newly released. "We are looking at a situation that has taken us a great big giant step back from the commitment that the people have the right to know." Ms. Cook cited a tightening of restrictions on journalists covering the war in Afghanistan and a memo from Attorney General John Ashcroft, issued last October, telling federal agencies they could count on Justice Department support if they withheld records requested under the Freedom of Information Act.

Historians, taking the long view, admit there will always be tensions between officials and the public about access to public records. Fear of scandal and embarrassment are prime motives, but there are other pressures for example, the enormous sums required to build presidential libraries lend a false sense of proprietorship. Multimillion-dollar book contracts can also be an incentive to stake an exclusive claim to material accumulated while in office.

But the basic rule of archives at all levels of government is that they should be impartial. The national archivist, for example, is independent from the White House, and does not serve at the pleasure of the president.

Mr. Giuliani's unilateral decision about his mayoral records has prompted talk in the City Council about a law that would lay down clear guidelines for his successors. "Federal law became much more explicit after Richard Nixon," said one New York City archivist. "Giuliani may serve a similar role on the local level."

-- (Dumbya@the.fascist), March 11, 2002


You might get more respect around here if you'd attribute your copy N pastes. Then again, you might not.

NYT, Feb 24, 2002 (registration required)

-- (fascist is @ fascist.does), March 12, 2002.

Problem with the message?

-- (why attack @ the. messenger?), March 12, 2002.

Yea, any comments on the message and the deepening discomfort it give you?

-- Cherri (jessam5@home.com), March 13, 2002.

The message gave me no discomfort whatsoever. I agree with it. I also agree that many of the messages posted, against everything REpublican, very much need attribution. This message needs more attribution: I never heard of Celestine Bohlen. Was this published in a newspaper or magazine?

-- Peter Errington (petere7@starpower.net), March 13, 2002.

I doubt that Celestine Bohlen has ever heard of you either, Errorton.

-- BFD (get@over.it), March 13, 2002.

Her fucking loss, Laura.

-- Peter Errington (petere7@starpower.net), March 13, 2002.

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