A better path requires more light

When I come to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), I don’t first send in a lawyer to negotiate who is required to appear with me and who should not be informed that I will be there. No “must, can’t, shouldn’t” limitations on NARA achieved through negotiation surround my coming there. I’m free. I just show up. Having and demanding no control over my relations with the National Archives is an enormously liberating, hence joyful, way to act.

The photo shows me earlier this week at the station for the National Archives in the Washington subway system after a visit to Archives 1. I’m using it to illustrate how thousands of ordinary Washingtonians travel through the city.  That is, when we aren’t taking five mile walks after leaving work, from the White House on past the Watergate to reach our objectives!

I am lucky because I don’t need logos and brand names for protective cover. In the age of the Internet, those really are unnecessary — for anyone. Who we are is on display, or at least it is for some of us.  This even applies to some of the officials associated with the presidential foundations.  The public gets some glimpses.  Not from minutes of meetings of the advisory committee on the National Archives and presidential foundations, although those are illuminating in their own perhaps unintended way.  Washington, open and hidden.

Presidential foundations largely are opaque, yet you can catch glimpses of the various goals, objectives, and values of some of the people associated with them. Some of those glimpses remind us of what we have in common. Others show a very different path from that which ordinary Americans such as I travel. My post today will look at both.

My visit to my former employing agency went the way all my visits to NARA go these days. The photo shows the joyous glow that accompanies my visits to the National Archives. And oh yeah, catch the blue in my hair at my temples, ha. Nearly four decades in federal service and I’m as mischievous as ever.

There was a particularly nice start to this week’s smile filled visit to NARA. The security guard who processed me into the building recognized me for some reason and asked, “Didn’t you use to work here?” I replied, “Yes, years ago. My twin sister worked here, too.” He replied, “I remember both of you.” Wonderful!

I beamed at him, shook hands and asked his name and when he started work at NARA. Then, as I turned around, I saw another friendly smile and bantered for a moment with another officer. I had met him while he was on duty in the Rotunda last year. It turned out he knows the DC police officer who is the husband of one of my best friends in my employing agency.

Memories of the dead, such as my late sister, live on among those who once knew them. And sharing stories and reminiscences keeps them still alive for us.  I was incredibly touched to meet someone at NARA this week who remembered us both. I was honored that he was kind enough to speak to me while on duty and to tell me he remembered Eva and me. 

The composite photo (I cropped out the person in the middle) shows the two of us around 1990 as the guard would have seen us back then. Remembering and wanting to keep alive the memory of departed family members, friends, and associates is something I share with the powerful and the privileged. It’s a very human reaction, one I understand. Yes, I’m thinking of former presidents.

How can the private presidential foundations that work with the National Archives and Records Administration better serve the presidents they try to honor?  By stepping out of what seems at times to be a pretty insular world and to broaden their outlook.  This should be easier to do in the Internet age than it has been. 

The foundations have to make decisions about where they stand along the spectrum ranging from hagiography to legacy burnishing to history “with the bark off.”  They need to identify the audience to which they want to appeal and understand whether their approach will limit or broaden understanding of the presidency.   Beyond that, there a number of issues to consider, from civic literacy to public relations to how they are perceived as organizational entities.   As things stand now, there is little incentive for the foundations to shed their insular ways.  They know they don’t have to step into the sunlight. 

Of the presidential foundations that work as private partners with federal presidential libraries, Nixon’s stands out for a number of reasons.  Other modern presidential libraries operate from the time of their establishment as federal entities.  Relations sometimes are pretty rocky, sometimes less so.  None are entirely smooth given competing objectives,  varying values, differing acculturations.   It is better in my view to admit that and work within that framework than to go through the happy clappy public assertions about the relations between the partners that I sometimes see in Washington.  Most of us are miserable in our private lives when we have to fake it or sing a tune that doesn’t suit our voices.  We can enage, even work together at times, without pretending we see everything the same way.  What holds true within our families and with our friends works the same way elsewhere, too. 

With one exception, the foundations that serve as private sector partners to the National Archives have worked from the outset in an environment that requires (but doesn’t always result) in balancing the interests of different stakeholders.   The Nixon foundation had charge of a private sector library for 17 years before it started working with a NARA administered library in July 2007.

Having voted for Nixon, I shook my head to see his foundation make some missteps in the months leading up to the establishment of a federal library.  In January 2007, the Nixon Foundation linked on its site to Ann Coulter’s post, “The Democratic Party:  A Vast Sleeper Cell.”  She wrote,”The passing of Gerald Ford should remind Americans that Democrats are always lying in wait, ready to force a humiliating defeat on America.”  This is the lesson Coulter drew from the past:  “Liberals spent the Vietnam War rooting for the enemy and clamoring for America’s defeat, a tradition they have brought back for the Iraq war.”

Glenn Greenwald took note in a column, “Our Right-Wing Arbiters of Masculinity.”   He wrote of the then private sector Nixon library, “Someone forgot to tell the Nixon Library that Ann Coulter has nothing to do with the conservative movement.” 

In a follow up column, Greenwald published an email he had received from Tim Naftali, the NARA director of the Nixon Presidential Materials Staff for which I once worked.  In “Nixon Foundation deletes Coulter column,” Tim wrote

“I read your blog posting on Salon.com of March 11, 2007, entitled “Our right-wing arbiters of masculinity”. Several readers, prompted by this article, have contacted me regarding the Ann Coulter column on http://www.nixonlibrary.org. Some have been concerned that tax dollars have gone to support that Web site and that the federal government endorses the content on that Web site.

I would like you and your readers to know that http://www.nixonlibrary.org is owned and operated by the private Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace. That private institution is distinct and separate from the federal Nixon Presidential Materials Staff, a part of the National Archives and Records Administration, which will, later this year, take over the management of the Nixon library and that Web site.”

The private Nixon library is no more.  Yet even in an age of Open Government, it is not always possible to sort through the complicated relations between federal presidential libraries and the foundations, their private sector partners.   This morning a transparency unconference is taking place in Northern Virginia.  My twitter feed is filled these days with comments from energized activists discussing civic engagement, open data, and the power of the crowd in a democratic society.  Among the twitterati, I recommend @digiphile’s account today of the tension between Open Government and Open Data.  What complicates things in Fedland is that there are parts of Washington where money, rather than the crowd, influences outcomes.

Coulter’s column centered on the Vietnam war, a central theme in Nixon’s presidency.  Will the National Archives be able to mount credible exhibits at the federal library in Yorba Linda about the war?   What is the intended audience for such exhibits?  People who nod along as they read Coulter’s columns?  People who want to understand how events unfolded, without having their views of the Vietnam war (whether they supported or opposed it) validated?  Will the approach taken with such exhibits depend on the source of the funding for them?   What should the public know about what Larry Hackman, former director of the Truman presidential library calls the “hidden hand” influence of the foundations?  Is there a sufficient counter weight among NARA’s stakeholders to the influence of the foundations?

Hackman wrote in an article in The Public Historian in 2006 that

“When the policy of a federal agency is that identifiable nongovernmental organizations are fundamental to the operation of programs under that agency’s direction, shouldn’t that federal agency obtain and report to the public information about the plans, activities, methods, and support of these organizations as they related to presidential libraries?”

He observed,

“The most important factor towards strong and balanced presidential libraries in the years ahead is vigorous and wise leadership from within the National Archives, the Office of Presidential Libraries, and the individual libraries. This will include a greater willingness to evaluate rigorously the performance of the libraries and to acknowledge more openly where change is needed. But along with this ‘internal’ leadership — and indeed serving as a catalyst and reinforcement for it — broader interest, deeper analysis, and more vigorous advocacy is needed from beyond the presidential library family. Historians and other scholars, educators, and public policy experts are the most obvious potential observers and actors. But everyone interested in a more accountable presidency and in a better public understanding of the past has a stake in the performance of these presidential libraries.”

Of the presidential foundations, Nixon’s has revealed the most insights into the thinking of various people associated it with it.  At two blogs.  No, I’m not thinking of the various iterations of The New Nixon, the official blog of the Nixon Foundation.  I’m thinking of it and a personal blog by Anne Walker, wife of Ron Walker.  I discovered it a little over a year ago.   When I engaged with Bob Bostock at The New Nixon in February 2010, I didn’t know that Anne Walker had written in January 2010 of an article in the Los Angeles Times


At long last, a favorable front page story in a major newspaper about President Nixon. Praise the Press. Hip, Hip, Hooray. Take that you archivist nattering nabobs of negativisms.”

On September 30, 2009, Anne Walker wrote

“Ron and I, Chris Elftmann, RN Foundation Board Chairman, and Sandy Quinn, Foundation VP are off on our ‘Rally the Troops Tour.’ The Nixon Alumni have not been involved with the Library. What was the previous leadership thinking? These are the folks who lived it, who care the most about what REALLY happened, and should be shaping the message and direction it takes. So that’s our mission for this trip.

The three guys met with the folks at the National Archives and the Nixon Center for International Study to spread the message about greater cooperation and the many exciting projects to come. A bunch of old Nixon pals will be brainstorming about ideas for projects, especially RN and PN’s centennial birthdays and the 20th Anniversary Reunion at the Library.”

At that point, I had been commenting at the Foundation’s official blog for just over a year.  I didn’t discover Anne Walker’s personal blog until late 2010 or early 2011.  By then, I had backed away from engaging with the Nixon side.  It was a phased withdrawal.  I had begun to pull back after Foundation director John H. Taylor left to become a full time Episcopal priest.   Largely through engaging  at the blog, John and I had developed trust zones and were well on the way to becoming friends.  (A year ago, John authorized me to share his reaction when I first posted at The New Nixon blog.)  There were things I saw at the blog in 2009 and 2010 after he left that concerned me and eventually led me to back off of engaging there altogether.  

The archival side of the presidential libraries is non-partisan.  How a president is viewed really is up to “the crowd” rather than to the Foundation or to NARA.  That is to say, individuals who come in to do research use the available records and produce works that reflect varying perspectives on a president and his times.   

Ideally, the museum side should be non-partisan as well, but the fact that the foundations often fund exhibits means that for all intents and purposes, they often control the content.   If they are proud of the resulting product, why not make plain to the public that they rather than NARA were calling the shots as regards content?

Some officials who once served in the Congress have noted that the best way to deal with campaign fund raising is to let anyone give any amount of money they wish but make mandatory the immediate revelation on the Internet of the names of the donors and the amounts. The thinking is that sunlight can serve as a disinfectant. What makes sense in unraveling the power of money as people campaign applies as much in the post-presidency.  That is, as long as private sector foundations underwrite some outreach and educational products in government facilities.  

Samuel Rumore suggested in a comment at my blog late yesterday that there should be privately funded and curated museums for former presidents and that NARA should house presidential records in government facilities and leave the exhibits to private sector facilities.   The handling of the mandated alternative models for presidential libraries in 2009 and in subsequent years tells me that this is not an issue that official Washington wants to tackle.

In the age of Open Government, there should be more transparency about exhibits in federal facilities that purport to be prepared by government employees but really aren’t.  They have the protective (in some cases even deceptive?) cover of the government brand  but don’t always reflect NARA’s values.  (It is hard for me to imagine anyone within the National Archives who actually supports making school children feel bad if they choose not to invade Grenada.)  That is a problem for both sides of the public private partnership. 

Revealing other details known to us governmental insiders, such as what NARA is required to do regarding some public appearances, is a little trickier.  How much can withstand the light of day and why there is so little transparency right now is an interesting question.  Larry Hackman, former director of the Truman Presidential Library, generally has argued for more sunshine and transparency in a number of areas relating to NARA’s relations with the presidential foundations.

Right now the optics surrounding presidential libraries are pretty poor, internally and externally.  Some of this stems from culture clashes, some from insularity, some from competing goals and objectives.  Anne Walker gave her perspective from the foundations’ viewpoint on December 6, 2009:

“The federal government owns the documents, so the archivist controls them and that part of the library that houses them. Foundations want to further their President’s legacy. The archivists want to present the administrations total picture for all to see and study. Here-in lies the basic conflict, sometimes adversarial, often more on the cordial side, but always interesting. Each institution expressed dedication to strive for collegiality with their on-site government employees. And each is proud to be playing the role of financial support group to NARA.”

I support collegiality but as with AA, believe that the way to move forward lies in “working the steps.”   There’s a lot of baggage on both sides, much of it public.  I shook my head when I saw Ron Rosenbaum assert in his recent challenge to Robert Redford in Slate that

“Ten years later, I did a review of Watergate issues for the New Republic in which I argued —using the newly released White House tapes (there are still more the Nixon Library has been hoarding), newly published memoirs, and other evidence—that in fact Nixon had ordered the break-in, not just the cover up, as most were content to believe.”

This post has enough to cover, I’ll have to leave the multiple problems with Rosenbaum’s post for a future essay.   I would not say that the Nixon Libray “has been hoarding” White House tapes.  However, there have been long delays in getting information released, going back to decisions about tape disclosures that were made by the Wilson-[John] Fawcett-Borders-Smith team during the G. H. W. Bush administration.  That a NARA spokesperson then gave out incorrect information (that archivists were transcribing tapes when no such work was underway) is just part of that complicated story.

Letting scholars be able to provide an informed and properly briefed counter weight to the official presidential libraries and foundations advisory committee is beyond NARA’s ability to act.  The long existing power imbalance is very challenging to fix, as a result.  However, I sometimes daydream about a scenario where instead of just meeting with designated officials, as traditionally has been the case, presidential foundation officials had regular and required contact with representatives of the National Archives Assembly and even its Union.   Talk about The Crowd!

I largely failed at The New Nixon, although I am grateful that I made some friends when I posted there.  (John Taylor isn’t the only one). That doesn’t mean that engagement is pointless. Presidential libraries isn’t a separate fiefdom, although some federal officials associated with it in the past reportedly have used the “we’re special” line within the agency.   Both sides of the private and public partnership might benefit from breaking down silos and listening to how they are perceived by a larger group.  And trying to find ways forward that don’t result in such a high risk of issues blowing up in the press or these days in the blogosphere.  And no, I’m not talking about putting a lid on things!  Just the opposite.

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