There really is no other job like being President of the United States. And nothing can really prepare a person for it. Andrew Leonard of Salon recently observed that in “corporate America, you follow orders or you get fired.” He explained that consequently “the American CEO has the worst possible preparation for the job of president — for switching from a job in which there is absolute power to serve a very narrow interest, to a position in which there is extremely limited power, but a mandate to serve the general interest.” How to do that truly is challenging. There’s also the issue of professional loneliness. A U.S. President has no peers.
There’s much to be learned about the operational and human elements of the presidency, yet releasing the records isn’t always easy. Not only that, it’s hard to get people to learn about the environment in which presidential records disclosure occurs. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has a mandate to serve the public interest. But people who aren’t archivists or archivist-historians often look at archival issues from narrow angles or even through partisan lenses. Advocacy can be challenging.
A recent discussion in an archivists’ forum included a thoughtful comment by a respected college archivist. He pointed out that archival institutions draw more outside researchers in the Internet age than they did prior to the 1990s. He explained that establishment of good relations with newcomers to archival research can lead to more people willing to advocate for such institutions. Excellent point.
I saw this first-hand early in my NARA career. When Alex Haley’s book, Roots, as published in 1976, I was in the last few months of my career at what then was the U.S. Customs Service. That is how I came to be pictured in a 1975 government publication which showed various Customs’ uniforms. In reality I had a desk job.
One of my colleagues and friends at Customs was Herbert M. Collins. Collins specialized in maritime issues and boats. Herb and I started at Customs around the same time and quickly became friends. He shared many interesting anecdotes from his earlier career in the Coast Guard, which has 1940s-era photos of him on its history website, “African-Americans and the U.S. Coast Guard.”
After his death in 2010, The Washington Post published a fascinating article about Collins’ experiences during World War II at Pea Island, which was manned by an African-American unit. Alex Haley had been one of his bunk mates in the Coast Guard.
In December 1976, I left Customs to join NARA’s Office of Presidential Libraries. The next year, Haley’s Roots was shown on television as a mini-series. Newsweek reported in an article called “After Haley’s Comet” that immediately after the airing, so many people showed up at the National Archives to try to trace their own roots “that administrators had to turn dozens of people away.”
The mini-series unleashed an increase in genealogical research that affected many historical societies. libraries and archival institutions. Since 1977, genealogists have been among the most enthusiastic advocates for archival repositories such as NARA.
Discussing records access is much more difficult than talking about genealogy, which most people find easy to relate to on a human level. Finding the right format or forum involves trial and error. Blogs provide a way to humanize issues and to post documents and images that provide support for statements made about complex issues.
Over the years I’ve looked at a number of existing history and records related forums. I’ve joined in on the conversations in a few, some of which I participate in to this day, tried others for a while and then left. The one at which I engage most frequently is an archivists’ forum. I started Nixonara because, among other reasons, I finally decided I needed a site where I could illustrate some of the issues rather than relying on assertions about them.
Many academics write about social or cultural issues rather than government operations. The number of historians who draw on federal records for their work is small. Presidential historians are even fewer in number.
I have cordial relations with scholars such as Stanley Kutler and Jeffrey Kimball, who once contributed to a blog called POTUS. But I haven’t found it easy to discuss NARA issues at sites drawing a more general readership of academic historians and history buffs.
The issues of statutory compliance are very arcane and the elements that can affect the life cycle of records may seem remote to some readers. Understandably, some people are too busy in their own fields of study to learn about what affects federal and presidential records.
Partisan lenses add to the challenge of discussing presidential libraries. Right and left framing makes it particularly difficult to air out out NARA issues. During the period when George W. Bush was president, I rarely saw a self-identified liberal raise questions about “Sandy” Berger or access to records issues involving Democrats. In forums I followed, I never saw a self-identified conservative raise questions about Bush’s Executive Order 13233 on presidential records or Karl Rove’s reported use of a political email account to send governmental messages or the disappearance of some emails at the White House.
Federal records come in to NARA through a process of records management so I briefly belonged to a records managers’ forum. I had seen people posting there about George Bush’s request that John W. Carlin resign as U.S. Archivist. Several referred to the topic as “political.” Others criticized archival leaders.
Shortly after joining the RM List conversation, I explained that I did so “because I wanted to air out issues such as why archival leaders were characterized here . . . recently as resorting to character assassination in the U.S. Archivist battle. And why archivists were perceived as whiners. I believed that was unfair . . . ”
I indicated that discussing the issues surrounding John Carlin’s resignation as Archivist in 2005 did not appear purely political to me. (I couldn’t share everything I knew about it from talking to people who then worked at NARA.) One records manager responded that he viewed discussion of the resignation as political and thought questions raised about Bush’s appointment of Allen Weinstein to succeed Carlin were political, as well. He said that in his opinion, some of what the library, archival and records associations said when Weinstein replaced Carlin reflected partisan politics.
The poster was honest enough to add that if the situation were reversed and the other side were involved (he was a conservative) he would smile and not mention it, however. It’s the only time I’ve seen someone admit that he might flip his take, depending on the party was involved. While I disagreed with his take on the Carlin issue, I respected his candor.
We had no interactions in other forums, only in the one for records managers–his turf, not mine. He had no training as an archivist. We looked at issues from different angles but with respect for each other; indeed, I liked him. Debates need not be contentious.
The records issues in which I was interested centered on the relationship between power players and records professionals. For example, I asked how Henry Kissinger was able to remove his telcon records from the Department of State at the end of his tenure as Secretary.
The materials clearly related to his governmental activities, yet Kissinger removed them from federal custody to a vault on David Rockefeller’s estate. He then deeded them to the Library of Congress with a stipulation that they not be made public until five years after his death. Although Kissinger still is alive, the Archives eventually obtained copies and released some of the material in 2004.
This isn’t a topic that is easy to discuss and few people responded to my posting. (That I wrote long posts probably didn’t help me; TL:DR, LOL.) However, I did draw some thoughtful and useful comments in the forum on more general issues. One poster thought that people didn’t like dwelling on the past. He said many had leaped instead to aggressive embrace of technology. This allowed them to survive and even to succeed in the profession.
But he noted rhetorically that who wanted to dwell on the records of the past that had been lost to history? He pointed to defensive walls going up between different professions, such as records managers, archivists, librarians, ones which in his view were increasingly difficult to penetrate.
The poster also felt that while records managers often were forward looking, archivists were all about perspective. It seemed to him that they tended to be more conservative about technological solutions than records managers. This was six years ago. There are enough young archivists who have entered the field since then that I feel it if such blanket statements ever applied, they probably don’t now.
Another poster agreed, stating that archivists tended to be thinkers, even over-thinkers at times, while records managers tended to be doers. Perhaps that is the case with some practitioners. Hard to tell as I sensed some people who posted on the list hid their natural tendencies and put on masks.
I was interested in alienation of records, replevin, the chilling effect on records creation, disclosure of information, and the chains of dependency between records managers, archivists, and historians. Whether there were distinctions between doers and thinkers or not, many of my issues were very arcane.
I came to feel that I didn’t fit in very well at the records managers’ forum. It happens. The forum seemed most at ease hashing out technical matters, rather than people issues involving power players, and sharing occasional off topic talk. After a while, I stopped posting at the forum, although I still look in on it from time to time in its web version.
If doers and thinkers sometimes look at issues from different angles, tone also can be a factor in issue advocacy. So can style of discourse. There’s a lot of ritual combat and jockeying for position on message boards. I still laugh at how I was called an enabler of a corrupt culture on one newspaper’s message board, after I explained why no one at the Bush White House could or should be imprisoned for failing to preserve records under the Presidential Records Act. Many posters use hyperbole at such news-media hosted forums.
History sites also display different styles of discourse. Almost all the history bloggers at the History News Network are male. Many of the commenters are too, although most of them don’t fling insults putting women down as being suitable to curate urinating cats, as one conservative man posting there once did with me. (I’ve disagreed with conservatives and liberals at the site on various issues. Most have been respectful in their discourse and I’ve largely responded in kind.) Rarely do the topics posted there relate to the issues I follow most closely, so I don’t post there much these days.
Few former employees of the Office of Presidential Libraries blog or engage in records or history oriented forums. I’m glad to see that Larry Hackman, former director of the Truman Presidential Library, served as editor for a new book, Many Happy Returns: Advocacy and the Development of Archives. Perhaps more NARA retirees will join conversations about records and history over time, in existing forums or at their own blogs.
U.S. Archivist David Ferriero recently posted a link to a NARA reorganization effort which is aimed at creating “an open door culture, creating a safe environment for differing views.” Not every history or records forum has those attributes. It takes hard work and good will and some sensitivity to those different from oneself to create such a forum.
You may not fit in everywhere but it’s the same as making friends and working with colleagues in real life. By trial and error and gauging people and studying how they handle different situations, you can find the forum that fits you best. There’s no better way to get to know people than to talk to them about difficult issues of national import.