With a recently signed executive order, George W. Bush has the power to keep from the public the presidential papers of Ronald Reagan as well at the vice presidential documents of his own father, George H.W. Bush. Signed quietly and with little advance warning, the order is a victory for self-interest and governmental secrecy and a defeat for greater understanding of the American presidency.
It gives sitting presidents and former presidents -- or in some cases their family members -- the authority to veto the public release of White House papers. If the former president says the papers are privileged, they will remain so even if the sitting president disagrees. If the sitting president says they should be kept secret, but the former president wants them released, they'll still stay locked up. Secrecy has the advantage, either way.
This seems a clear and inexplicable violation of the 1978 Presidential Records Act, which made presidential and vice presidential papers government property, to be released 12 years after the officeholders leave. Of course, papers determined to interfere with national security or violate personal privacy are exempt.
The White House argued ex-presidents needed more authority to claim executive privilege, and a system to release the documents had to be put in place. But no former president asked for the protection. In fact, quite the opposite. Spokesmen for both Bill Clinton and the Reagan Library objected to what Bush did.
The White House said that absent "compelling" circumstances, the incumbent president will agree with the former president's (or vice president's) recommendation to release or disclose. There are two problems with this.
First, if these are public papers, then the former executives should have no control over them. To give them control makes them private papers, which effectively neuters the 1978 law. Second, if these are public papers, the existing president should have no say about their release.
It used to be, if Congress passed a law, it took another act of Congress to repeal it. Presidents could not do it on their own.
The papers from Reagan/Bush I were to have been released in January, but Bush II blocked their disclosure three times. He hasn't said whether he'll use his new powers to continue to hide them. Some suspect he wants to keep the documents from the public because of his father's role and because so many of his top advisers held posts in the Reagan administration. Their conversations could be embarrassing or awkward for Secretary of State Colin Powell, Chief of Staff Andrew Card, or Vice President Richard Cheney.
Reading most old presidential papers would put a good citizen to sleep, but they are important and valuable. Papers from the Cuban missile crisis offer an instructive look into how a previous administration kept this part of the world from blowing itself up. Lyndon B. Johnson's papers show a man rendered sleepless by the Hobson's choice that was Vietnam. Historians use them, and so do present-day officials seeking guidance.
The Presidential Records Act was passed in response to Richard Nixon's efforts to hide his papers. President Bush should ask himself if he wants history to make that comparison.
The Peoria Journal Star