Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Nixon Made Everything So Complicated

In the late 1980s, after professionals at the National Archives had painstakingly prepared the Nixon White House records and tapes to be opened to the public, they began to get the distinct impression that 37 was exerting influence through their superiors to slow the process down.

Nixon's argument (I know it well, because as his chief of staff in New Jersey, I was helping make it) was that he should be treated the same as his predecessors when it came to the disclosure of sensitive documents and especially secretly-recorded tapes. Other presidents, incumbent and former, may have come to the conclusion that it would also be in their interests to to slow down the Nixon records express.

But as far as the Nixon archivists were concerned, the law of the land, and the regulations the agency has derived from it, were perfectly clear. Former Nixon tapes archivist Maarja Krusten tells the story in a detailed post at NixoNARA that should be required reading for federal employees at all presidential libraries, especially wealthy ones where the former president, his family, or his operatives bring financial or political influence to bear on archival or curatorial questions.

Krusten's conclusion:

I just don’t know all the reasons why those of us who argued for greater sunshine in the Nixon records release process lost our fight in 1989. That NARA later struggled to tell this story does suggest that perhaps there were some powerful forces at play, inside and outside government. But this simply may have reflected a phrase those of us at the Nixon project heard increasingly during 1989—”the presidential libraries way of doing things.”

Open government is a noble goal but not always easy to achieve when former presidents face disclosures from their records. And let’s face it, most of us probably would not find it easy to throw open for public display the candid deliberations we once took part in on the job. Would we find it easy, on top of that, to let the public know about our concerns about planned archival disclosures, even if regulations required it? My archival cohort argued for transparency in 1989. Others in government evidently saw it differently. Laws and regulations often posit a pristine environment for resolving such issues. But my experiences suggest that often, when it comes to sunshine, it really does ”get complicated.”

No comments: