Bush Tries to Close The Vault of History

Whenever the press attempts to define a new Presidency, there is a tendency to make comparisons with its predecessors. Aside from the obvious echoes of his father in George W. Bush’s wartime demeanor and choice of advisers, there have been evocations of others who came before, sometimes intentional and sometimes unconscious. In his effort to soften his party’s negative image with the slogan of “compassionate conservatism,” there was more than a hint of Clintonian cleverness. In his retrograde economic policy, there are almost daily imitations of Reaganism at its worst.

But a parallel to this administration’s obsession with secrecy and hostility to open government can only be found by looking back much further. The description that seems increasingly and disturbingly apt is Nixonian.

Last week Mr. Bush signed a sweeping executive order that, in the name of national security, blatantly seeks to revoke the Presidential Records Act of 1978. That law, passed in response to the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s subsequent attempt to treat White House documents as his private property, granted scholars, journalists and other citizens reasonable access to such materials within 12 years after a President departs office. Both substantively and symbolically, it represents one of the most important reforms of the post-Nixon era.

Not coincidentally, the first set of Presidential papers to be affected by the act are those of the Reagan administration, including the documents of a Vice President named George Bush and others involving former top officials who have returned to positions of power this year. Ever since this administration took office in January, it has been maneuvering quietly to withhold 68,000 pages of confidential communications between Mr. Reagan and his staff which the National Archives and the Reagan Library had previously agreed to release.

Alberto Gonzales, the White House counsel who drafted the executive order, promptly assured reporters that his purpose is not to cover up “embarrassing” documents. Ari Fleischer, the press secretary who announced it, told the press corps that the order merely creates an “orderly process” so that “more information will be forthcoming.” It will, he said, “help people to get information” and was designed to “implement” the Presidential Records Act.

Like so many of his other pronouncements, Mr. Fleischer’s description deserves to be treated skeptically. To Bruce Craig, director of the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History, a coalition of historians and archivists, the clear intent of Mr. Bush’s order is to undermine and virtually undo the act. He points out that the order would set up huge bureaucratic obstacles, giving a former President or members of his family the right to veto any request and requiring anyone requesting certain kinds of sensitive papers to prove a “specific need” for them. Both the present and former President would have to agree before such sensitive materials could be released, and if either said no, the only way to obtain them would be to go to court.

Mr. Craig calls the order “a giant step backward,” probably the “first in a series of executive orders” that will restrict access to public documents and government information.

In fact, the pattern has already been established in this administration. Attorney General John Ashcroft recently instructed federal agencies to apply the most restrictive interpretation of the Freedom of Information Act, again supposedly for national-security reasons. That specious justification was not even broached when Vice President Dick Cheney withheld the most basic information from Congress about his Energy Task Force, a violation of fundamental democratic principles for which he has escaped accountability.

Most Americans will perhaps regard the Bush executive order as a trivial matter, of little or no concern at a time when the nation is struggling against murderous enemies abroad (and possibly at home). Yet as we ought to have learned during the Cold War, it is precisely at such moments that loyalty and patriotism require resistance to the curtailment of basic liberties. The President’s attempt to close the vault on history has nothing to do with prosecuting the war against terrorism, and everything to do with covering up embarrassments both past and future.

The American people are fortunate that citizens like Mr. Craig and his coalition are determined to hold that vault open, in Congress if possible and in court if necessary. Their efforts are especially critical because other individuals and institutions are failing to uphold the responsibilities invested in them by the nation’s founders.

The best-selling celebrity historians haven’t said much about this outrage, even though they depend on access to public records. So far, the only significant comment on the Bush executive order in the mainstream press has come from the Los Angeles Times, which published a scathing editorial on Nov. 6. The other national newspapers and the fawning commentators have remained silent, too busy burnishing the President’s image to worry about his administration’s contempt for their profession.

These watchdogs of freedom have deteriorated terribly since Tricky Dick’s downfall. Today they almost never bark, let alone bite.