Monday, May 26, 2008

IHC Lecture: Robert Dallek

This past Thursday night I had the wonderful privilege of attending a lecture sponsored by the Idaho Humanities Council at the Colonial Theater in Idaho Falls. On his second visit to Idaho for the Idaho Humanities Council lecture circuit, presidential biographer and my personal favorite historian, Robert Dallek, addressed the question of whether or not an ethical presidency is possible in the modern United States.

Dr. Dallek is no stranger to the Presidency. He has written numerous books and articles on the presidency as an institution and on the famous men who have held the post over the years, including Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan. His masterpiece, An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, was published just as I was leaving high school and beginning my college career. Without question, that work played a significant role in the shaping of my academic future. His most recent work, a copy of which I now have signed by Dallek himself, Nixon & Kissinger: Partners In Power, outlines the tense, yet working relationship between President Nixon and Dr. Kissinger. Dallek attacks secrecy as a method of conducting foreign policy with the energy and gusto we can only hope to see in all discussions relating to the secret nature of our President's conduct.

Following Dallek's superb lecture, the audience was offered note cards to jot our questions down on for Dr. Dallek to answer in the fifteen minute Q&A session. My question was one of the half dozen chosen. Not surprisingly, I asked about the status of the executive order (13233, drafted by Alberto Gonzales) passed by President Bush in 2001 that currently limits access to presidential records and whether or not Dallek foresees a change in this policy. His response (transcribed here from the wonderful voice recorder embedded in my cell phone):
"Thank you, thank you for that question. I am very interested in this; it sort of gores my ox to have these things hidden away.

Now, it used to be until 1978, presidential papers were owned by the presidents themselves. Even though every piece of paper, every document was generated by public monies. They owned the papers. Then after Watergate, the Congress passed a law, and Jimmy Carter signed it, making future presidential papers, beginning with Reagan, property of the public, of the country. Now, up until then, beginning with Franklin Roosevelt, in perpetuity, they built presidential libraries with private funds, and the papers were put into those libraries and then they donated the libraries and their papers to the government, to the National Archives, and archivists took charge of them. It takes usually thirty, thirty-five, forty years before presidential records can be opened because they have to guard against national security breaches and violations of privacy rights.

Bush, however, in November 2001, issued an executive order that seemed to me, and a lot of other people, a clear violation of the Presidential Records Act because what he did was to say that presidents, their families, their heirs, could keep certain presidential records closed. I’ve testified twice before two House subcommittees about this issue and every Democrat and every Republican on those committees, not a single one dissented from the idea that this executive order should be overturned.

Now, the House recently passed a law overturning the executive order, the Senate has one, but it was put on hold by Jim Bunning, U.S. Senator from Kentucky, saying that under the personal rule of privilege, or whatever the hell that is called, saying that presidents have the right to hold back certain information. Well, I hope that the next president that comes after this one sees past that and signs this bill into law.

How are we to know our history? How are we to know the kind of things that we do? That’s what I love doing. You know, those archives, thirty or thirty-five years after a presidential administration they un-bury those presidential papers…there’s some wonderful stuff in there."
And in that response, whatever reservations I had about graduate school, the challenges, surprises, and unknowns it will offer, those reservations completely disappeared from my mind. Again, Robert Dallek has gotten to that core belief, of mine and of other historians, that this job we do is important; that there must be historians, archivists, and researchers who are willing to dig a little deeper to share the stories of the generations before us.

I found Dr. Dallek's lecture immensely satisfying on a personal, academic level, but I also found it rather fitting that he would speak volumes to the value of these records in a state that doesn't seem to be ultimately concerned with what happens to the papers of our own elected officials.

The Idaho Humanities Council did a wonderful job in planning this event and in bringing Dr. Dallek back to Idaho. If you have not visited the IHC homepage, please do so, and please consider contributing to this very important Idaho organization.

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