Presidential libraries are supposed to be some of the great archives of history, but some researchers say it’s difficult to get the good stuff

May 13, 2009

Scholars: Presidential libraries keep top-shelf info out of reach
By Patrick McGee
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Monday, February 16, 2004

Researchers complain texts are withheld, but archives officials say they’re restricted by laws and by the task of processing millions of documents.

A scholar working at the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum sometimes found pink papers inserted into files indicating that documents had been removed.

A biographer doing research at the Reagan library is finding vast amounts of information blacked out.

Another historian said he was told by officials at the John F. Kennedy library that certain records were not available — though they were later given to someone else.

Founded to be some of the great archives of American history, presidential libraries are full of obstacles, historians say, that keep them from getting the full picture.

Although tens of millions of documents are available, some of what historians presume is the most interesting material is under lock and key because of national security, restrictions put on donated papers and an executive order from President George W. Bush.

Texas is the only state with two presidential libraries — the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum, affiliated with the University of Texas at Austin, and the Bush library affiliated with Texas A&M University in College Station.

Historians give both libraries high marks for having wonderful archivists, but even these reputable institutions have their roadblocks.

More than 1.5 million documents at the Johnson Library are still classified for national security, and many documents at the Bush library are closed because of Bush’s executive order.

Rebecca Deen, an associate political science professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, said that she felt the effects of Bush’s order while doing research at his father’s presidential library. She found pink papers inserted into folders where documents had been removed.

“The most frustrating thing is where you get to where you think you want to be, and you find a pink piece of paper,” she said.

“The archivists have told me quite frankly they are conservative in what [files] they close,” Deen said. “They admit that they are overly cautious, but I don’t think that’s because they want to protect Bush. I think it’s because they want to follow the letter of the law.”

Bush’s November 2001 executive order allows a former president, a representative of his, or even the current president to keep files closed, said Martha Joynt Kumar, a political science professor at Towson University in Towson, Md.

The intent is to prevent a “chilling effect” that might hinder aides when advising presidents. Aides, the thinking goes, will be less inhibited advising a president if they know their paperwork will not soon be on public view, Kumar said.

Some historians see the policy as more of an outrage than administrative prudence.

“In a democracy, people have a right to know what their public officials have done, what their history is,” said Alan Brinkley, a Columbia University history professor. “The fear of embarrassment is not an adequate reason for restricting public access.”

Historians such as Brinkley also believe that former presidents, their relatives and former aides exercise too much influence over the libraries’ holdings. In some cases, former aides have even taken up management positions in presidential libraries.

Harry Middleton, director of the Johnson Library for 30 years until he retired in 2002, said Johnson called the U.S. archivist to get him appointed as director, but he denied ever withholding documents to protect the former president.

In fact, he said, Johnson took unequivocal steps to set the tone for openness.

“He called me from his ranch and said, ‘We’re opening everything, aren’t we?’ ” Middleton said. “He said, ‘I don’t want another damned credibility gap.’ ”

Although between 1.5 million and 1.7 million documents remain classified, more than 45 million pages of material are open, said Betty Sue Flowers, Johnson Library director.

Written appeals to open files have a 90 percent success rate, she said.

Many historians agree that the library is accessible.

But they’re not as generous about the Boston-based library of LBJ’s predecessor, John F. Kennedy.

The John F. Kennedy Library and Museum has “an element of the keeper of the flame, and they are occasionally in certain areas selective as to who gets access to certain parts of the collection,” said Tom Knock, Southern Methodist University history professor.

Knock is on one of three SMU committees that are quietly researching ways to lure President George W. Bush’s future library to their campus.

Kennedy biographer Thomas Reeves said he was a victim of that selective access when he unsuccessfully sought the slain president’s medical files in the early 1990s.

Another biographer, Robert Dallek, got the files, but only after a committee reviewed them and told him he had to bring a doctor with him.

Deborah Leff, director of the Kennedy Library since 2001, said this is not evidence of stonewalling but of the library’s adherence to the law.

Much of the library’s collection was donated by the Kennedy family — with restrictions. The family was allowed to do this by law then, just as Robert Todd Lincoln, son of Abraham Lincoln, was allowed to delay the openings of his father’s papers — donated to the Library of Congress — until 1947, 21 years after Robert Todd Lincoln’s death.

Opportunities for restrictions ended with the 1978 Presidential Records Act, which makes all presidential papers government property.

The Reagan presidency was the first to be affected by the law, but it did not make the Reagan administration an open book, said presidential biographer Richard Reeves.

Reeves said he’s researching a Reagan biography at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and often finds documents with names and information blacked out.

Even the names of people who dined with Reagan are blacked out.

But it would be wrong to interpret all this as signs of a secretive government, National Archives spokeswoman Susan Cooper said.

The archives employ the archivists and directors at libraries for every president from Hoover to Bush, except for Nixon, whose papers were seized by the federal government when he resigned in 1974.

She said they strive to share their troves of history with scholars but must obey the laws about releasing documents and are, more than anything, hindered by the logistical task of processing tens of millions of documents.

“These libraries have highly trained archivists to do that, but we don’t have hundreds of people working on them,” Cooper said. “The task of gaining control over this material is huge. … You will always find somebody who says that they can’t find something or that they can’t find access.”