Monday, January 24, 2011

Max Kennedy And The Cone Of Silence

My predecessor as Nixon library director, Hugh Hewitt, attracted intense and undesirable national attention for saying that journalist Bob Woodward wouldn't be welcome to consult our archival materials because he wasn't a "legitimate researcher." I was then Richard Nixon's chief of staff. Nixon had me call and say that while he appreciated the thought behind the anathema Hewitt had pronounced, he should lift it pronto.

Now we learn that the Kennedy library and one of Robert F. Kennedy's sons, Max, is blocking access to the late attorney general's papers. Among other things, scholars are eager to learn what Kennedy knew and when he knew it about plans to try to assassinate Cuba's Fidel Castro. According to John Tierney, writing at James Fallows' blog*, when a Boston Globe reporter contacted Max Kennedy to find out why this rich cache of materials is still in Steven Spielberg's federal warehouse with the Ark of the Covenant, here's what resulted:
[C]lassic stonewalling -- some blather about scholars with "poorly conceived projects" who fail to follow "correct procedures" to seek permission to consult the papers.
We'll see if the Kennedys have more luck with that line than we did. Of course in this case there may be nothing anyone can do, since all the Kennedy records were considered private property according to pre-Watergate archival practice. Still, Tierney writes:
The Kennedys don't deserve this attention and adulation if they're not willing to be open with the truth, if they remain intent on having the public see only the attractive side of Robert Kennedy's legacy. They don't deserve the unstinting praise and the undying devotion if they're not willing to come clean. If they were to do so, they might deserve the attention that comes their way now by constant management and manipulation of the family image.
*I originally erred in writing that James Fallows was the author.


J.C. Marrero said...

Surprised that such materials might still exist. Except for Nixon's papers, I was under the impression that by law and tradition a former president's "papers" would be released or not by the pertinent library as it saw fit. Presumably, that might involve a little erasing and shredding of the dicier stuff.

Although, a pretty humorous tape was recently released of LBJ ordering pants over the phone. Definitely, R-17 for colorful language.

Fr. John said...

Great to have your comment, Juan. Before Nixon, presidents and their cabinet members and aides (or their legal assigns, if I have that term right) owned their papers and, if they wished, deeded them to the National Archives, Library of Congress, or university libraries at their sole discretion and with whatever restrictions they wished. It's understood that many documents were destroyed before being deeded or deposited.

MK said...

Hi, John, welcome back!

Although White House records were considered the personal property of the president until the 1970s, the rest of the executive branch moved into the modern era of record keeping much earlier. The Records Disposal Act of 1943 covered the official records of executive departments and agencies. Under the act, agency and department heads could remove personal files and non-record material upon leaving office but official records had to remain within federal control. There’s a strong possibility that RFK removed some materials he should not have.

The Federal Records Act (1950) gave the National Archives an oversight role in federalr records management. It directed agency and department heads to make and keep records that adequately documented their functions, organization, essential transactions and activities. The National Archives, which had been a small, history oriented agency from 1934 to 1949, became a part of the General Services Administration and acquired a new mission: federal records management. The Archives regained its independence in 1985 but retained dual archival and records management functions. In the 1950s, the National Archives first established federal records centers, worked with agencies and departments to prepare retention (or records control) schedules which stated what could be destroyed and what had to be transferred into the Archives custody as permanent (including the records of agency and departmental heads), historically valuable records. It also started doing audits of federal record keeping.

The longtime records statutes notwithstanding, studies show that improper removal of records by departing chiefs has been a problem for decades. The Kissinger telcon records from his tenure as Secretary of State never should have gone to the Library of Congress but actually belonged in the National Archives. Probably a failure of records management or more likely a failure in the support structure (my guess is the RMs at State did not get back up or may have been kept in the dark, athough lawyers usually are the best allies of RMs).

Interesting how Nixon’s lawyers kept hearkening back to the Kennedy model, including at a meeting with Reagan administration lawyers. I touched on that in my blog post about John Roberts, then a lawyer in the White House.

Fr. John said...

Thanks for straightening me out on that, MK.