Values, Perceived and Real

In writing about archival advocacy in Many Happy Returns, a book he edited, former NARA Truman Presidential Library director Larry Hackman writes, “Communicate your values; virtue will be rewarded.” Hackman tells archivists, which I once was,

“Among the very best advocacy techniques are for the archives to find ways (a) to impress people, inside and beyond the organization, by hard work, professionalism, and a commitment to improve the program and its services and (b) to demonstrate that the archives is not driven by perks, privileges, and status symbols, especially any that have personal rather than institutional implications. Potential allies and supporters will come to disrespect archivists whom they believe are interested more in their own welfare and comfort than in the larger program and purpose. Archives should look for opportunities to convey the character and motivations of the archives leadership and staff and the internal culture of the archives.”

However Hackman developed this wise approach to advocacy, it is not one I often see in the political realm these days. This makes it hard to work out realistic solutions on many records related issues. As I’ve noted previously, being president is so difficult because it involves toggling between two worlds, the grown up world of policy and the often schoolboy-like world of politics, where blame shifting, seemingly blind tribalism, self-righteousness, and name calling rule.  Both parties are vulnerable to that.

Former Bush administration official John Yoo addressed this in a different context in a Q&A at The Washington Post site in 2006.

Anonymous poster’s online question:

“Modern-day Presidents come into office with their public images colored by bitter electoral contests that often reflect an ethos of win at any cost. Can they easily shed that coloration once in office? Or does it become a drag on their ability to govern and convince the public of their trustworthiness?

The campaign ethos often reflects expediency and even a disregard for truth. If becoming President depends on one’s supporters handing out leaflets that imply that not voting for George Bush will lead the Bible to be banned in Arkansas, so be it. Or calling all critics unpatriotic. Or implying that John McCain has an illegitimate child, as happened during the primaries in 2000. Or, to use an example that may have harmed George W. Bush in the contest with Al Gore, leaking news of a candidate’s drunken driving arrest at the end of the campaign in 2000.

Do a President’s appointees understand the degree to which their efforts in governance are hurt by the earlier use of these tactics during a campaign? And by the continued reliance by many Presidents on political advisors for tactical advice while in office? How can you separate political expediency from governmental expediency, doing anything to win, but then turning around and saying, we will govern ethically and honorably? In other words, as a former government official, how insulated were you? Do you understand the extent to which your ability to stand up and argue ‘trust us, there is a legal and Constitutional basis for what we’re doing and we would never do anything to hurt Americans’ is harmed by the baggage an administration drags behind it politically?

John Yoo:

That is a very good question. It may be the case that the political environment created by campaigns makes it more difficult to govern, particularly in the foreign affairs area. This may be true especially when foreign affairs and national security issues are prominent in the campaigns themselves, as they were in 2004.”

A posting in an archivists’ forum with the header, “There are no records of meetings at the row houses just off Lafayette Square that house the White House Conference Center,” linked to a story in Politico about meetings between lobbyists and White House aides. When I saw the header, my reaction was similar to that of historian Russell Riley, who wrote an op ed during the Bush administration about record keeping. Riley observed:

“While much of Washington has been focused over the past week on reports about Vice President Cheney’s early discussions of Valerie Plame’s identity, little notice has been given to something equally surprising about these revelations — their source. Investigators looking into the case reportedly found evidence of these meetings in former vice presidential aide I. Lewis ‘Scooter’ Libby’s own notes of conversations he had with Cheney.

White House alumni across political lines — and others wise to Washington’s current ways — have undoubtedly had the same incredulous reaction on first hearing this news: You mean he actually wrote it down?

Ever since President Richard M. Nixon got tangled up in the transcripts of his own tape recordings, the White House has operated more and more as an oral culture. Anything that shows up in written records can become a target for a hostile investigator. Accordingly, White House staffers have learned over the last few decades that the less committed to paper or computer, the better.”

However, despite the intriguing header in the archivists’ forum, the records in the article turned out merely to be White House gate logs, which show who came in as a visitor. The type of information which Vice President Cheney had resisted revealing about his energy task force. Although the Obama administration voluntarily has released visitor logs (the government’s position, as during the Bush years, is that they do not fall under the Freedom of Information Act), meetings with lobbyists at a nearby conference center produce no such logs.  Naturally, as during the Bush years, some outsiders have an interest in who is meeting with whom. What transpired in actual meetings may never be recorded. Generation of records usually is organic to specific business functions (such as the clearing of visitors into a secured building complex). Rarely are records created “just for history” or consciously to leave a “paper trail” for researchers to study.

Barack Obama made vague references to open government and transparency during his campaign. Some open government advocates and political partisans have criticized his administration for not releasing more information than it has. My conversations with records experts at the beginning of the Obama administration suggested that he never intended for deliberative or pre-decisional information to be made available, but rather post-decisional information or specific datasets. It’s an area in which I would have worded my promises differently, had I been Obama. Indeed, I would have advised him that while transparency is a noble objective and open government an ideal, creating and releasing records requires a safe haven which just does not exist in the real world.

It’s hard to tell what is going on with the meetings with lobbyists described in The Politico article. The piece seemed as speculative to me as much of what was written about Karl Rove’s use of a Republican National Committee BlackBerry and the disappearance of certain email from the White House system during the Bush administration. If the proper response to the Bush administration stories was to say, “hold on, we just don’t know,” then the same applies to stories about Obama’s staff.

If Obama’s administration faces some expectation gaps now, that is due to lack of clarity and perhaps over promising what is feasible on records related issues. Open government is associated more with Democrats than Republicans (although there have been champions of Freedom of Information in the GOP, such as the late Rep. Steve Horn (R – CA), whose stance Secrecy News recently described.) Yet both parties occasionally trap themselves by taking holier-than-thou positions or over promising, without taking into account the difficulty of achieving what they call for. More realism would have served Obama better on records related issues, given what has turned out to be his largely pragmatic, even adaptive, approach to governing.

That public discourse has turned so toxic affects executives at the state level, as well. Today’s Washington Post describes issues related to the actions of some public sector unions but says of the situation in Wisconsin, “. . . having the power to do something doesn’t make it the wise choice. There’s no shortage in America today of go-for-the-throat, take-no-prisoners politics. What’s more often missing is an effort to bring everyone to the table and to recognize some legitimacy in opposing points of view.” From where I sit, one of Gov. Scott Walker’s problems lies in the rhetoric, on his own side as well as the other, that surrounds public debate at present. Not just birtherism and other boo-hoo-hoo “don’t like it” examples of refusing to accept that the American people voted Obama into office, but the anger and emotion on both the right and the left that characterizes much of our public discourse.  This puts many discussions of what are complicated issues at the comic book level.

In the federal government, unions don’t bargain on base pay. They have been active on other issues, such as the establishment or operation of performance management systems (as reported in the press during the Bush years), workplace safety, abusive conduct by managers (or workers–yes, really), etc. Although I’m not a member of a union — my current position precludes it — what I saw of actions by union representatives at NARA largely was positive. Often, they soothed situations rather than stirring things up. In one case, a union representative was very helpful in calming down, at least for a while, a situation involving a worker who had unrealistic expectations of what he was due.

The situation was so tense for a while, some of my colleagues avoided being in a room with the man, for fear he might attack his boss or even them.  My reaction was the opposite, I tended to hang around the two, so a third party would be present.  As a colleague and friend of the manager involved, I was grateful for the union representative’s actions. The union rep had street cred with the angry dude who was complaining about his boss which others in NARA did not. I know of other instances where union reps worked as facilitators and advisors, providing good solid counsel to employees and helping to resolve issues fairly during workplace disputes.

I don’t believe in John Dean’s theory of “conservatives without conscience,” with the problems that authoritarian tendencies cause.  There may be such people on the right, but I don’t think they represent conservatives as a whole.  However, I do think that just as Democrats still trail baggage from the actions of doves and demonstrators during the Vietnam war era, the GOP suffers from the loss of moderates and its empathy- and fault admission-fearing image on talk radio and some of the blogosphere. That hurts it with people like me, who look for partnering and displays of good conversational skills, rather than a Big Daddy who’ll tell me how it’s gonna be, and shut up, little lady, if you don’t like it.

If I still worked with archival issues, I could see a Mitch Daniels listening to someone like me if I had ethical issues in the workplace or thought my colleagues needed protection. Scott Walker, with his talk of using the National Guard against teachers, and some of the angrier faces on the right, not so much. Few on the anti-union right have tried to build up credibility as people who will act fairly and not just be motivated by money (“don’t even think about asking me to do this, I don’t want to spend the money on it, shut up and deal.”) If Jonathan Haidt is right that many conservatives don’t value fairness and social justice as much as liberals, then who’s going to fill the void in some workplace areas requiring fairness and balance, if unions are crushed?

As people often do, I look at many current issues through the prism of my own work experiences at NARA.   NARA’s union president Peter Jeffrey spoke up on issues related to the Nixon Presidential Materials Project when others would or could not. I admire his courage in doing so. Even when I still self-identified as a conservative Republican during the 1970s and 1980s, I was drawn to defend the underdog and people whom I perceived as being unfairly under attack, as I explained in one of my earlier blog posts.  Not everyone is wired that way.  Rarely have I seen conservatives call out bad actions on records issues by the GOP or liberals stand up against poor practices by Democrats.

If arguing for consistent application of values has so little impact in records related advocacy, and looking at root causes of problems so difficult to do, how are we going to resolve other, bigger issues at the state and national level?  As Joel Achenbach said a couple of years ago about punditry and blogging, “The moderated opinion, nuanced and open-minded, is a field mouse in a land patrolled by raptors.”   Too often, we let demagogues set the tone, making it harder to admit that rarely does one party or the other only have right on its side.  That being the case, why would anyone want to create records, if so few people understand the concept of safe haven or are willing to do the heavy lifting required to build a culture where writing something down is not seen as a high risk action?

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