Looking to publicize opposition to a presidential executive order that limits access to presidential records, the Association of American Publishers, the Authors Guild and PEN American Center brought together three distinguished historians to discuss their fears that the executive order will serve to block important presidential research.
In a packed hall April 11 at the CUNY graduate center in Manhattan, critically acclaimed presidential historians Robert A. Caro, Arthur Schlesinger and Robert Reeves, authors of major works on presidents Johnson, Kennedy and Nixon, respectively, complained about restrictions imposed on historians under the recent executive order. The group discussed how government officials, invoking either claims to privacy or national security, more often abuse these exemptions to shield themselves, their colleagues and their records from public scrutiny.
The event was organized to address presidential executive order 13,233, issued by President Bush in November 2001, which allows incumbent presidents, former presidents, vice-presidents and family members of deceased presidents the right to veto the release of presidential records. The executive order essentially blocks the 1978 Presidential Records Act (PRA), which makes all but the most sensitive presidential records available to the public 12 years after a president leaves office.
Clearly unhappy about Bush's order, the group didn't have much good to say about the PRA or the Freedom of Information Act, either. Even so, Reeves noted that Bush's order is a "threat to the things I'm working on," and reminded the audience that papers also disappear from public access because "they are valuable commodities. They're worth a lot of money." Caro said, "Both the PRA and the FOIA are "inimical to democracy." Reeves went so far as to call the executive order "an attempt to overrule the legislature."
At the heart of the issue is the number of documents—44 million pages of Nixon documents and 50 million Reagan pages. Historians, the panel agreed, don't always know what they're looking for until they see it. Official documents, Reeves explained, can lead to the unofficial but important "box of papers in someone's garage." Caro complained that these laws require the researcher "to request specific things in advance to get information, but that's contrary to practice. You can't know what you're looking for in advance."
Caro, who has worked on his LBJ books for more than 10 years, said the PRA's 12-year waiting period was also an obstacle. "If you can get records, you can interview people, ask very specific questions and get a more precise understanding of events. In 12 years a lot of people are dead. That's a tough interview."
And while Schlesinger defended the right of presidents to protect their privacy, Caro countered that "the privacy of the president must be subordinated to our right to know." And all three historians agreed that claims of national security are used arbitrarily to block access. "There's an aggressive bunch running the country," said Reeves, "and they want to make it difficult to gain access to records."