A Train to Nowhere

For reasons I don’t understand, Gary M. Stern, the General Counsel of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), needlessly got on the wrong train when he co-authored an article on presidential records for The Public Historian in 2006.  He could have avoided getting on the train that takes you back to a flawed story of 1980s era initial rather than final review of the Nixon tapes that lawyers tried to sell the court during the George H. W. Bush administration.  Archival records–the handling of which make up the bread and butter of NARA’s mission focus–all said that review work was “final.”  No wonder I got beaten up and stabbed in 1992–not only did I know what the Nixon era “abuses of governmental power” were, my story about archival actions matched the contemporaneous NARA records.

I don’t know what led to Stern’s decision to get on that particular train and to head off down the wrong track.   (My advice to him would have been, if you can’t get on the train on the right track, which admittedly would have required making some super tough choices, don’t get on any train at all.  That would be very Fed lawyer like, actually.)  Too late now, off he went.  I’ve linked him to the Don Wilson era since then.  Song for the morning?  One by a ’80s era Euro synth pop group, Bad Boys Blue, “A Train to Nowhere.”

My contemporaneous reaction to Stern’s decision is recorded in comments posted in 2007 at “Reading Archives,” a blog then written by Professor Richard J. Cox.  Given the beatings and stabbings I endured, I don’t come across as bitter or angry.  Rather, I referred to the hand Stern was dealt (one I would have played very differently in 2006) when he joined NARA in 1998.  You can read into that a then still flickering hope (since extinguished) that he might extricate himself from some of the issues rather than dig in deeper.  Among other things, my post describes some of the problems with the interrogatory responses filed with the court on behalf of NARA in Kutler v. Wilson in 1992.

As an aside, I’m afraid I’m going to give NARA’s new Presidential Libraries (NL) Tumblr a miss.  There are some fab people who work in the Presidential Libraries as Fed archivists.  I greatly respect some of the officials in the system, too, although I don’t regard all the library directors the same way.  (Too many differences in how they handle their jobs.)  The so-called “public-private partnership” in which Presidential Libraries operate is difficult and challenging to navigate.  (My next post will address what happened with a fascinating essay about Watergate which David Emig, who once was a regular blogger at The New Nixon, posted yesterday.  His essay is well worth studying, but I can’t put up a link.  You’ll see why in my next post.)

What made me go, “nah,” on NARA’s NL Tumblr?  I summed it up on Facebook yesterday evening when I posted on my wall: 
“I’m afraid I burst out laughing when I looked at the Presidential Libraries Tumblr comments policy statement that ‘All information should be verified through official channels at NARA.’  That worked so well in 1991 (“transcribing tapes?” Srsly).”
The reference was to a Wilson era NARA public affairs official who told The New York Times in 1991 that archivists were transcribing the Nixon tapes and that years would pass before they would be released.  (No wonder Stanley Kutler filed a lawsuit the next year.)    Go ahead.  I challenge my readers.  Try to find the work product now, because no systematic transcription was taking place, then, previously, or later.  The worst part is that once again, NARA seemed to be shooting from the hip recklessly, with no knowledge of what its institutional memory held.

On September 6, 1984, the Washington Post reported that James J. Hastings, NARA’s Acting Director of the Nixon Presidential Materials Project, said the agency would not be making systematic transcripts of the Nixon tapes. “Hastings said . . .that the Archives has ‘no intention of doing a transcript.’ ‘It is improper and unethical for an archivist to interpret a document,’ he said. ‘With all the checking and double-checking involved, it takes about 250 hours to transcribe one hour of tape and you end up with a questionable document. The first 80 percent of a tape is easy, but the last 20 percent takes a long, long time to get right.’”

I remembering shaking my head when NARA put out a story about archivists transcribing the tapes in 1991.  Of course, I discussed the fable with my Nixie peeps back then.  At the higher levels, those who speak for the Office of Presidential Libraries– “officially”– never issued a corrective statement.    I would have done so.  NARA wouldn’t have looked so silly the next year when officials testified under oath that transcription was rejected as an option for processing the Nixon tapes in the late 1970s and early 1980s and doing transcripts would have been wrong in archival terms. 
Think about that.  All the clues to why Kutler imploded the next year are right there.  And why I burst out laughing at the comments policy for the new Tumblr.  At the time NARA put out the transcription story in 1991, Jim Hastings already was on the record in the 1980s as saying NARA was doing no transcripts.  I easily found his comment when I needed to quote it in 2009.  (Hey, do a little research next time, NARA.  Don’t you employ history majors?)  But then, I had left NARA’s employ hearing the assertion that I didn’t understand “The Presidential Libraries way of doing things.”

At Reading Archives, I cited the government’s Wilson-era actions, to which Stern linked himself in the 2006 article, as providing elements for an interesting class experiment.  Dr. Cox thanked me and said he hoped I would write about my experiences one day.  I replied that I wasn’t ready to do so yet but might some day.  I finally starting blogging in December 2010, earlier than I would have liked, when federal Nixon Presidential Library director Tim Naftali came under attack in 2009-2010. 

“Always, do the right thing.”  Yesss! 

How many times can I end a post with, “Good luck, Big Dude.”  One mo’ time, LOL.

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