Undercutting history

Michael Beschloss'S new book, "Reaching for Glory," based on White House tapes and records, reveals the depths of depression into which President Johnson sank as he privately concluded that the Vietnam War was unwinnable. Richard Reeves's new book, "President Nixon," drawing on documents and diaries from the Nixon White House, fills out the picture of this tormented, paranoid man who was driven from office.

How much we will learn about the inner workings of more recent presidencies has been thrown into doubt by an executive order signed by President Bush.

In 1978, after a court fight over the Nixon records, Congress passed a law permitting the release of presidential records 12 years after the end of the term. The first to become eligible for release last January were some 68,000 pages of Reagan records. But the current White House postponed their release three times, saying that further review was needed. Finally, the president signed the order permitting an incumbent, or former president, in some cases even the family of a dead president, to veto the release of his papers.

The whole idea of the Presidential Records Act was to avoid another Nixon tapes battle, by taking the decision out of the hands of the one most concerned and putting it in the hands of the National Archives and historians. President Bush has put himself in the odd position of asserting the right to rule on papers of a period when his father was vice president and claiming to be "out of the loop" in the Iran-Contra scandal. There may also be in the Reagan papers references to officials now serving under the incumbent, such as Secretary of State Colin Powell and budget director Mitch Daniels.

Republican Rep. Doug Ose, a member of a House subcommittee with jurisdiction over presidential records, says the Bush order "undercuts the public's right to be fully informed about how the government operated in the past."

Inevitably the question arises: What is it about old Reagan documents that has this president so concerned?

Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at NPR.

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