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The National Archives: Alone in a Clash of Cultures

An executive branch agency, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), staffs and administers the Presidential Libraries of Presidents from Herbert Hoover through Bill Clinton. Soon a George W. Bush Presidential Library will be added to that number.

The Libraries have differing cultures and NARA's officials face many challenges. The National Archives' Inspector General expressed dismay when agency officials themselves tried to retrieve stolen Clinton Presidential documents from Sandy Berger, without immediately reporting the theft to him. ""I'll spend the rest of my life going to bed at night wondering, 'Did he take more,'" the Inspector General told a reporter in 2007.

At the pre-Watergate Presidential Libraries, Presidential records were donated to the government as personal property. At such Libraries, even now, some federal archivists spend years, even decades, cultivating relationships with Presidential families. Statutes are less of a factor than at the Libraries of later Presidents.

At the Libraries of Presidents starting with Ronald Reagan, the Presidential Records Act (PRA) of 1978 and some provisions of the Freedom of Information Act provide public access to records. An executive order issued by George W. Bush permits a former President, his family members (in perpetuity), and a former Vice President to claim privilege over material that NARA has screened and deemed releasable.

Richard Nixon represented a transitional figure between the donor-restricted and the PRA-administered Libraries. The government took charge of his records under the provisions of the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act (1974). During the 14 years I worked with Nixon's records as a NARA Nixon Project employee (1976-1990), I never saw or met with him or his family. We archivists were sequestered behind agency lawyers, whom I relied on to protect us. We remained mysterious (perhaps threatening) figures, easy targets for Nixon's lawyers when it came to litigation.

Richard Nixon's once-secret tapes revealed how he himself once viewed records and the Archives. The tapes captured Mr. Nixon's reaction in 1971 to the publication of excerpts from a secret history of the Vietnam War.

President Nixon fumed about the leak of the Pentagon Papers, then turned his attention to the Brookings Institute. "You're to break into the place, rifle the files, and bring them in." Mr. Nixon also ordered the government to declassify the records of his presidential predecessors in order to "embarrass the creeps."

John Ehrlichman noted in 1971 of records deposited in the Archives by Democratic officials, "I'm going to steal those documents out of the National Archives." Mr. Nixon replied, "You can do that." (Egil "Bud" Krogh noted in his insightful book, Integrity (2007), that such a break in reportedly occurred but that his Plumbers group was not responsible.)

Nixon griped in 1971, "When [John] Mitchell leaves as Attorney General, we're going to be better off in my view. . . . John is just too damn good a lawyer. . . . It just repels him to do these horrible things, but they've got to be done."

A law passed in 1974 called for disclosure at the earliest reasonable date of "the full truth" about the governmental abuses of power known as Watergate. My colleagues and I found "the full truth." But NARA released only 63 hours of tapes during Mr. Nixon's lifetime. Only after Mr. Nixon died in 1994 did the Archives release 200 additional hours of Watergate tapes, including the discussions about breaking in to Brookings and the Archives.

Fox News reporter James Rosen relied on those tapes in writing a new biography of John Mitchell. Rosen knows something about archival processing. As a college intern, he worked with my NARA colleagues and me in 1987 and 1988. He concluded in The Strong Man that Mr. Mitchell "was a restraining influence on Nixon" who stood "fundamentally apart from the criminality of the Nixon administration." But Rosen believes the Attorney General was "undone by unswerving loyalty to his 'client,' the president."

When Stanley Kutler filed a lawsuit for access to Richard Nixon's tapes, my former boss and I were among the witnesses called to testify in 1992. However, the named defendant in Kutler's lawsuit was U.S. Archivist Don Wilson. After Wilson resigned in 1993 to take a job with the George H. W. Bush Foundation, his successors replaced him as defendants.

Richard Nixon entered the lawsuit as Intervenor. Seymour Hersh wrote of my former boss that his "three days of testimony turned ugly." Nixon's attorney effectively put him on trial "by repeatedly asking questions implying that he was biased against Nixon." He was not. He had, in fact, voted for Nixon. However, the Archives' mandate required archivists to work objectively, which he and his staff had done. Moreover, he had received "outstanding" ratings from NARA's management for his work. My former supervisor later expressed disappointment at "the failure of the government attorneys 'to take aggressive steps to protect a government civil servant at a deposition at which they were supposed to be representing the government.'"

As a federal employee, although no longer with the National Archives, my legal representation lay with the Department of Justice (DOJ). I was questioned for two days in 1992 by lawyers representing Nixon and Kutler. I was stunned when I later discovered that the government had made available to the plaintiff and to Nixon an archival Processing Manual that I had helped write while employed at NARA. But I had to rely solely on memory to explain (under oath) 14 years of government work. It was a sobering lesson in how Washington operates.

Starting around 1990, a privately run Nixon Library housed Richard Nixon's pre-Presidential papers in California. The Library merged with the government's Nixon Project to became a part of NARA's system of Presidential Libraries in July 2007. In 1996, I jousted with John Taylor, director of the Nixon Foundation, in letters published in the Chronicle of Higher Education. "John" and "Maarja" now chat in a genial fashion over at The New Nixon website. We have a shared interest in the enormously complicated Richard Nixon.

Nixon's lawyers served their client very well. Only a handful of tapes were released during Nixon's lifetime. While I understand why Nixon's side did what it did, for lawyers at the Department of Justice, I feel pity. As for the National Archives, it is vulnerable to being trapped between two cultures. One is the Presidential, which, as David Gergen pointed out in 2000, has become increasingly dependent on spin. The other is scholarly, which is dependent on facts. As long as statutes fail to recognize the gap between the cultures, the Archives will be left alone to work through the many challenges that surround its difficult but important mission.