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Historians ready to fight Bush order

By Kelley Shannon, Associated Press, 27 November 2001


AUSTIN -- President Bush's executive order allowing former presidents to limit the release of their White House documents is a setback for studying history and likely will result in a court fight, prominent historians said Monday.

Mr. Bush's executive order "blatantly reverses" a 1978 federal law governing the release of presidential papers, said Robert Schulzinger, a University of Colorado history professor.

"I also think it's so wrong-headed that it's bound to be challenged and very likely to lose in the courts," Mr. Schulzinger said.

Hugh Graham, a history professor at Vanderbilt University, said the constitutional claims of Mr. Bush's order are so broad that a court test is necessary. Dr. Graham said he would agree to join such a lawsuit.

The researchers spoke at a Lyndon B. Johnson Library symposium.

Former President Ronald Reagan's records were to have been the first released under the 1978 Presidential Records Act, which made presidential papers the property of the government, not ex-presidents.

The law called for presidential records to be released after 12 years, except for those withheld for national security or certain personal reasons. A former president could claim executive privilege to prevent the release of certain documents, but a sitting president had the final say.

With Mr. Bush's new executive order, signed Nov. 1, a sitting president cannot override a claim of executive privilege made by a former president. The privilege claim can be appealed in court, however.

Mr. Bush said he signed the order to protect national security.

The White House this year delayed three times the release of some 68,000 pages of Mr. Reagan's presidential documents. Included were some vice presidential papers of Mr. Bush's father.

Historian Michael Beschloss said he hopes historians' work isn't hindered by Mr. Bush's executive order. He said it's too early to know its full effect.

Mr. Beschloss said he favors opening presidential records as quickly as possible and said making the documents public provides insight into a presidency and improves a leader's reputation.

For example, he noted, that once Dwight Eisenhower's presidential papers were opened in the 1970s it disputed previous criticism that he had been uninvolved in major events.

The documents showed that Mr. Eisenhower was engaged in his administration's decisions and that he played a large role in maintaining the peace and prosperity of the 1950s, Mr. Beschloss said.

The ongoing release by the LBJ Library of thousands of White House conversations secretly taped by Mr. Johnson has had a similar positive result, said Mr. Beschloss, who has written books on the subject.

The audiotapes show that Mr. Johnson spoke privately just as strongly as he did publicly on issues such as civil rights during the 1960s, he said.

The public is best served with as much openness as possible, said Tom Johnson, chairman of the Lyndon B. Johnson Foundation.

He said public officials should ask: "How will my actions taken in private today look when they are published or when they are opened in the not-too-distant future?"

By creating a climate of openness, those who oversee a former president's documents send a message that they were proud of his administration, Mr. Beschloss said.

By contrast, keeping documents secret sends a message to historians that there is something to criticize, he said.

Mr. Johnson's widow, Lady Bird Johnson, attended the symposium Monday. The two-day conference at the University of Texas comes at the end of the 30-year tenure of retiring library director Harry Middleton. Betty Sue Flowers is succeeding him as director.

© 2001 Associated Press
Reprinted for Fair Use Only.

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