By now, many have forgotten the records-censoring executive order issued by President Bush in November of 2001. The order gutted the Presidential Records Act of 1978 and gave presidents the right to prevent the release of their presidential papers – forever.
This audacious act requires nothing less than a national conversation about the role of history in a representative democracy. For it mocks the very notion that the historical record of the presidency is Americans' shared property, the font of all meaningful historical examination of what went right and what went wrong and how we can do it better in the future.
It takes decades, even centuries, for an accurate account of presidential history to evolve. As the partisan myopia of the present gives way to the serious study of the past, We The People turn to our historians for understanding.
I've always had utmost respect for historians, for I have dabbled in the craft enough to gain an appreciation for how rigorous the work is, how time-consuming a method history can be in the hands of experts. Documents are to historians what minerals are to geologists: Without unfettered access to the tools of the trade, we're left with the best-guess version of history, replete with spin, post hoc dissembling, and an utter lack of the healthful accountability that history provides.
In recording the past, history also threatens to hold the present to account. Many a politico, faced with a decision between the public interest and political expediency, can be brought to the light with a single reminder: History will know what you did.
President Bush, however, seems unperturbed by the importance of his legacy. In a Jan. 8, 2007, story in the Dallas Morning News, the president told Wayne Slater and G. Robert Hillman that he's still reading histories about George Washington. "If they're still analyzing No. 1, 43 ought not to worry about it," he said.
Perhaps this worry-free philosophy stems from the fact that he has a tight grip on the documents that would inform future historians.
The 2001 executive order even allows a sitting president to block the release of a former president's records, even if that president doesn't object to the public disclosure of his personal papers.
To challenge action taken under the order, historians, journalists, and ordinary citizens must seek redress in court.
Historians, who know that our history begets our future, rose up in outrage. Congress responded, albeit slowly. The House passed legislation this year to nullify President Bush's order by the veto-proof margin of 333 to 93, with 104 Republicans breaking administration ranks.
That bill was also on its way to passage in the Senate when, on Sept. 24, Sen. Jim Bunning (R) of Kentucky objected to floor consideration of the measure, automatically holding up a vote.
I called Senator Bunning's office the other day. Yes, a staffer told me, the senator has a hold on the bill. And no, he won't be saying why.
This act should gall those who care about the sanctity – and significance – of the nation's history.
If those who ignore their history are doomed to repeat it, then what becomes of those who manipulate their history? And what does it say of the citizenry who allows the whitewashing?
It's worth remembering the widespread disgust over presidential secrecy that gave rise to the Presidential Records Act. It emerged from the tattered remnants of Richard Nixon's presidency, in reaction to his attempts to control the historical record. The law asserted complete "ownership, possession, and control" of all presidential and vice presidential records by the National Archivist, who would make them available to the public 12 years after a president leaves office. The only exception is that if a former or incumbent president claims an exemption based on a "constitutionally based" executive privilege or continuing national security concern.
Now, the Bush administration, using its powers of executive order, wants to obscure its own history. Future presidents, Republican or Democrat, will find that sort of control downright tempting.
If Bush's executive order is not overturned by Congress, it will allow presidents, their heirs, and – for the first time – vice presidents and their heirs, to deny the American people access to the full historical record of their administrations. History will lose to propaganda, unless those who record it are freed to do their work.
Charles N. Davis is the executive director of the National Freedom of Information (FOI) Coalition at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. He is also a member of the Society of Professional Journalists FOI Committee.