12 minutes ago
Who Owns White House History?
It’s time to remind President Bush as he leaves office that his White House records are not his personal property. They belong to the nation. The Presidential Records Act made that the law of the land after the Watergate scandal. Showing disturbing forethought, Mr. Bush signed an executive order in his first year, effectively decreeing that a sitting or former president can withhold his papers indefinitely
Congress is moving to strike down the Bush order. The House has overwhelmingly approved a corrective measure that has a good chance in the Senate. If there’s any delay, we urge President-elect Barack Obama to issue his own executive order restoring the Presidential Records Act as soon as he enters the White House.
When Mr. Bush signed his order, the speculation was that he was hoping to spare the disclosure of some inner-sanctum embarrassments committed by his father’s administration or perhaps Ronald Reagan’s. Now, with so much of the latest Bush history needing to be plumbed from Baghdad to Wall Street, a robust public records law is ever more crucial for robust democracy.
The law already provides former presidents reasonable protection, letting them withhold sensitive records, including advice from aides, for up to 12 years. While the the Bush White House claimed that the order merely put an organized process in place, the result was to gut the presumption of public access.
Under the current rules, requests for records require the concurrence of a concerned former president or his descendants plus the current president. They have unlimited time to judge the issue. Beyond that, historians must resort to litigation. This is a pathetic way to cheat history. As the poet Robert Lowell wrote, “All’s misalliance. Yet why not say what happened?”