Monday, January 12, 2009

Secrets of the Powerful, Part I

Over the last eight years, the outgoing President and the (now all-but-vanished) coterie of his faithful have more than a few times offered up their misdeeds on the altar of History: "history will judge," "when the histories are written," and so on, in the usual hope that incompetence or wickedness today will be rewarded by ignorance tomorrow. It is a very convenient platitude. In addition to sitting at some temporal vanishing point of unknown but presumably sufficient distance -- that is, after the speaker has died and no longer capable of sensing judgment -- capital-H-history is a disembodied cosmic force. Its very abstraction implies no author but itself. But pace the Hegelians, History exists nowhere; historians, on the other hand, do. And I can tell you that there is nothing a historian likes better than a Bankers Box full of other people's paper. Despite its appeals to deific and self-writing History, the Bush administration has always known this.

Executive Order 13233, signed by the President in November, 2001, aimed to keep Presidential records out of the National Archives and safe from the prying eyes of historians. In sum, the Order allows Presidents and Vice-Presidents (this latter bit one of the Order's innovations) to withhold White House records in perpetuity. Previous regulations and Executive Orders, established after Watergate and during the Reagan era, laid out timelines for the release of records and placed constraints on the privileges of the Executive Branch to keep them obscure. It seems fair to assume that with this Order Bush, Cheney, and their advisers hoped not only to arrogate their deeds above the law of the present, but to deny any honest, damning evidence be presented in the future court of "History," whose hobbled verdict they hoped would acquit them. Not much of a surprise, perhaps, but a move painful in its simultaneous cowardice and conceit. 

Happy news, though! As the National Coalition for History -- which has been challenging the Bush records policy for years -- reports, the first act of our new House of Representatives was to push through H.R. 35, a bill that sets out to overturn E.O. 13233. The New York Times recently urged President-Elect Obama to speed the process along with an Executive Order of his own.

Here's hoping, then, that the Senate, the new President, or both will set the tone of a new administration by demolishing E.O. 13233 as soon as possible -- before too many records get pulped in the Bush retreat. There will be little responsible historical judgment without a responsible foundation of paper.

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