Fifty years ago on July 4, 1966, Lyndon Johnson signed the landmark Freedom of Information Act while vacationing at his Texas ranch. But the event does not even appear in LBJ’s Daily Diary, which is the first indication that something was amiss on the Pedernales.
In fact, the record shows that the launch of this bedrock piece of American democracy, replete with lofty public expressions of pride and patriotism, was actually met with profound ambivalence throughout the administration. Documents from the LBJ library show that the normally gregarious president, who loved handing out pens at bill signings, refused even to hold a formal ceremony for the FOIA, personally removed strong openness language from the press statement, and only agreed to approve the bill after the Justice Department suggested LBJ issue a signing statement that undercut the thrust of the law.
A Democratic congressman from Sacramento, California, the late John Moss, was the real hero of the Freedom of Information story. Supported by extensive press coverage and active lobbying by newspaper editors, Moss led hearings beginning in 1955 that documented and denounced excessive government secrecy. But as long as Eisenhower was president, Moss could hardly find a Republican co-sponsor for his proposed openness reforms.
Republicans became more interested in supporting openness during the Kennedy and Johnson presidencies, especially after LBJ’s landslide victory in 1964. As a young Republican from Illinois assigned to Moss’s subcommittee, Donald Rumsfeld signed up as a leading co-sponsor of the Moss bill for freedom of information, and denounced what he called the Johnson administration’s “continuing tendency toward managed news and suppression of public information that the people are entitled to have.” (Less than 10 years later, Rumsfeld as White House chief of staff, and his deputy Richard Cheney, would lead president Ford’s effort to veto the strengthening amendments to the FOIA, but they would lose.)