National Coalition for History

News Briefs, January 2009

Lee White, January 2009

NCH Urges Incoming Administration to Reverse Secrecy Trend

The National Coalition for History recently urged the incoming Barack Obama administration to reverse the secrecy trend of the last eight years and to restore openness in the executive branch. Three separate proposals call on President-elect Obama to restore efficiency and openness to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) procedures, reform the classification system to reduce overclassification and facilitate greater declassification, and ensure presidential records are handled in accordance with existing law and the intent of Congress.

A diverse coalition of over 60 organizations, convened by the National Security Archive, developed the three proposals. If adopted, the recommendations would establish a framework for accountability, integrity, and greater effectiveness in the federal government. The proposals call on the president-elect to take the following actions during his first days in office:

Revoke President Bush’s executive order on the Presidential Records Act, which undermined the PRA by purporting to create new constitutional privileges for the family members and descendants of former presidents and for former vice presidents; commit to working with NARA and Congress to ensure necessary oversight for the transfer and processing of the Bush presidential records; and establish a policy for the new administration to preserve all presidential records of administrative, historical, informational, or evidentiary value (see www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/nsa/foiatrans/PRA_Transition_Recommendation.pdf).

Issue a memorandum on the Freedom of Information Act that establishes a policy of maximum possible public disclosure of government records and directing the attorney general to issue a memo that reinstitutes the presumption of openness under FOIA, calls on agencies to use technology to engage with and inform the public, and commits to creating a more collaborative and less adversarial relationship with the public on issues involving access to information (see www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/nsa/foiatrans/FOIA_Transition_Recommendation.pdf).

Issue a presidential directive rejecting prior abuses of the classification system and tasking the relevant executive branch agencies to develop a new executive order on classification that will reduce overclassification, add internal mechanisms to prevent classification abuses, ensure consideration of the public interest throughout the lifecycle of classified information, and improve the declassification process and information sharing (see www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/nsa/foiatrans/Classification_Transition_Recommendation.pdf).

Leadership of Two Key Congressional Committees Determined

The leadership of two congressional committees critical to the interests of the historical and archival communities was determined in late November. In the 111th Congress, Senator Joseph I. Lieberman (Ind.-Conn.) will remain the chair of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee after efforts to oust him from the job because of his outspoken support of John McCain for president failed. In the House, Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chair Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) won his battle to take the helm of the Energy and Commerce Committee.

Waxman was perhaps the most vocal advocate of openness and transparency in the House and his leadership in this area will be missed. It was Waxman who not only introduced the bill (H.R. 1255) to revoke President Bush’s Executive Order 13233 (which had made it more difficult to gain access to presidential records) but also got the bill passed in the House with a veto-proof margin. Waxman took the lead as well on investigating millions of e-mails missing from the White House computer system and pushed legislation through the House to strengthen the preservation of federal and presidential records. Waxman was also a leader in efforts to prevent the overclassification, and to speed declassification, of federal and presidential records.

No clear successor has emerged to Waxman especially since seniority is no longer the guarantee that it once was that the member next in line will ascend to the chair. Representative Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) is next in seniority. However, it is not yet clear whether Representative Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) will challenge Towns.

Although he was re-elected as an independent in 2006, Senator Lieberman has caucused with the Democrats and gave the party the razor thin 51-49 majority it needed to control the Senate in this Congress. However, his well-publicized support of Senator McCain and his criticism of president-elect Obama during the campaign caused a great deal of consternation among many Democrats. Once it became clear that the Democrats had enough new seats to ensure their majority, there was a great hue and cry for him to be stripped of his committee chair and perhaps even thrown out of the Democratic Caucus.

In the end, a request from President-elect Obama that Lieberman be spared made the difference. By a vote of 42-13, the Democratic Caucus voted not to strip Lieberman of his chair.

It needs to be noted that in the 110th Congress, Senator Lieberman was a stalwart supporter of legislation (H.R. 1255, S. 886) to revoke the Bush executive order on presidential records. Senator Lieberman pushed the bill through his committee and worked tirelessly behind the scenes negotiating with the Republicans to lift their hold and to allow the legislation to come to the floor for a vote. Lieberman will play a key role in the future of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission whose programs need to be reauthorized in 2009.

NHPRC Awards Grant for Founding Fathers Papers Pilot Program

On November 18, 2008, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) met in Washington, D.C. The biggest news to emerge from the meeting was the announcement of a $250,000 grant award to the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities (VFH) for a new pilot project—under the aegis of Documents Compass—to transcribe and encode for online and print publication documents on behalf of documentary editing projects from the Founding Era of the nation.

This new effort will prepare verified and XML-encoded versions of unpublished documents and develop a workflow that can help the Founders editorial projects in their publishing process. The pilot project is the result of the Report to Congress by the Archivist of the United States on how to provide online access to the papers of the Founding Era. The state of the Founding Fathers projects had been the subject of a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing earlier this year. As Perspectives on History reported in the December 2008 issue, the VFH also received a $327,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to create a founding-era biographical database.

Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History Reopens

On November 21, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History reopened its doors to the public, providing a new look at the almost 200-year-old Star-Spangled Banner. The museum reopened after a two-year, $85 million renovation that was paid for by $45.9 million in federal funding and $39.1 million in private contributions. The renovation project focused on three areas: architectural enhancements, including a grand staircase and skylight; construction of the new Star-Spangled Banner Gallery; and updates to the 44-year-old building’s infrastructure.

President George W. Bush and Laura Bush dedicated the Star-Spangled Banner Gallery during a ceremony on November 19. A special enclosure, fronted by a 35-foot floor-to-ceiling glass wall, protects the fragile wool and cotton flag while providing maximum visibility to visitors. The new viewing gallery cost $19 million and restoration of the flag cost $8.5 million. The 30-foot by 34-foot banner is displayed in a horizontal orientation and, to reduce stress to the textile, at a 10-degree angle of elevation. The room has low light levels to protect the flag and a separate environmental system that keeps the temperature and humidity constant in the chamber.

Nixon Library Releases Additional Tapes and Records

Nixon TapesOn December 2, 2008, the Nixon Presidential Library released approximately 198 hours of tape recordings from the Nixon White House recorded between November and December 1972 and consisting of approximately 1,398 conversations. The conversations cover topics such as the 1972 presidential and congressional elections, reorganization of the executive branch, creation of a “New Majority” for a reinvigorated Republican Party or new conservative third party, the late stages of the peace negotiations to end the Vietnam War, and the decision to bomb the Hanoi and Haiphong areas in North Vietnam.

This is the 12th set of Nixon White House tapes released since 1980 and with this release approximately 2,217 hours of tape recordings from the Nixon White House are now available to the public.

All 198 hours of the newly released tape recordings are available on the Web at the Nixon Presidential Library’s web site. They are also available at both the NixonLibrary in Yorba Linda, California, and at the National Archives’ College Park, Maryland, facility.

The Nixon Library also opened to the public approximately 30 cubic feet of textual materials from the White House Central Files—Staff Member and Office Files of J. Fred Buzhardt, President Nixon’s attorney during the Watergate scandal, and of Bryce Harlow, senior adviser and counselor to President Nixon. The released records also include approximately 10 cubic feet of textual materials from the Jeb Stuart Magruder papers relating to his service on the Committee to Re-elect the President.

Senate Panel Issues Report on New NHPRC Grant Programs

In October, Congress enacted the Presidential Historical Records Preservation Act of 2008 (PL 110-404, S. 3477) to promote funding to preserve, digitize, and provide online access to documents of historical significance that may not have received funding in the past. Recently, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee issued a report making it clear it that the new programs created under the law should not supersede existing categories of grants in competing for National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) funds.

The committee report states that the NHPRC should have the discretion to determine what eligible programs are given priority out of existing funds. The committee also supported providing the fully authorized amount of $10 million in annual appropriations for the NHPRC.

The National Coalition for History had opposed the original version of the Presidential Historical Records Preservation Act and in a letter to the committee called for many of these same changes that were made in the bill before it was enacted and in the final report language. The NCH argued that the new grants initiatives would put further strain on the already severely limited financial and human resources that the NHPRC has at its disposal. In addition, the NCH argued that unlike the NHPRC’s existing authorization statute, the bill as introduced removed the discretion of the archivist and the commission in making grants to nonfederal entities in possession of presidential documents with historical value.

The law creates two new NHPRC grant programs. The first would provide funding to institutions to preserve documents associated with presidents who do not have presidential libraries under the existing National Archives Presidential Library system. Through the Presidential Libraries Act of 1955, the National Archives and Records Administration currently manages and maintains 12 presidential libraries (from President Herbert Hoover to President Bill Clinton). However, there are many historically significant documents associated with presidents who preceded President Hoover, and these are not maintained by federally owned archival depositories.

The new law sets stringent requirements for entities seeking funding under the new “Grants for Presidential Centers of Historical Excellence” program. Activities conducted under the grant process would have to be included in the National Archives annual budget filings.

Under the new law, the NHPRC could award grants on a competitive basis to public-private partnerships to enhance preservation and public access to historical presidential records that are owned by private libraries. Institutions applying for funds under this process must either be not-for-profit or be owned by a state or local government. Entities competing for grants under the law would be required to receive matching grants from nonfederal sources; ensure a plan is in place to preserve and provide public access to the historical documents; provide a facility that is capable of appropriately preserving the documents; and provide free public access to the documents.

The Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs requires the NHPRC to issue a report identifying current entities that fit the requirements and would be able to apply for grants.

Under the second program, the National Archives could create an electronically searchable database of historic records of servitude, emancipation, and post-Civil War reconstruction contained within federal agencies for genealogical and historical research and to assist in the preservation of these records. The bill gives the NHPRC the authority to provide grants to states, colleges and universities, and genealogical associations to preserve records and establish databases of local records of such information.

President Bush Awards National Humanities Medal to Three Historians

On November 17, 2008, President Bush awarded the National Humanities Medals for 2008 in a ceremony held in the East Room of the White House. Nine distinguished Americans, one museum, and a philanthropic foundation were honored for their contributions to the humanities. Three historians, Gabor S. Borritt, Richard Brookhiser, and Harold Holzer, were among those receiving the award.

Gabor S. Boritt, scholar and Civil War historian, was recognized “for a distinguished career of scholarship on Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War era.” “His life’s work and his life’s story stand as testaments to our Nation’s precious legacy of liberty,” the citation stated. Richard Brookhiser, biographer and historian, was recognized “for helping reintroduce Americans to the personalities, eccentricities, and noble ideals of our Founding Fathers” through “his works of biography and history [that] rendered vivid and accessible portraits of the early days of the Republic.”Harold Holzer, scholar and Civil War historian, was recognized “for engaging scholarship on that crucible of our history, the American Civil War,” and for work that “brought new understanding of the many facets of Abraham Lincoln and his era through the study of image, word, and deed.” The National Humanities Medal honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation’s understanding of the humanities, broadened our citizens’ engagement with the humanities, or helped preserve and expand Americans’ access to important resources in the humanities.

—Lee White is the executive director of the National Coalition for History.