Sunday, April 6, 2008

I've Got a Secret

One is distressed, though not terribly surprised, to read in the Times yesterday, to quote the redoubtable Jim Folts, the stalwart head of reference services at the New York State Archives, that “The State Archives did not receive from the Pataki administration many types of records that have been received from prior administrations.” Those records included correspondence, messages to the Legislature and other speeches, photographs and proclamations. All that has been received are press releases. A spokesperson for Pataki has said the bulk of what was “required,” has been turned over, but that “we remain in possession of some documents that are being reviewed. If deemed appropriate, they will be made available to the archives at a later date.”

One is also distressed to read that there is no law or provision requiring NYS governors to turn over anything to the archives. An attempt to clarify the governor’s responsibilities in this regard was made during the Pataki administration, where it passed in the Assembly, though predictably died in the Senate (though one suspects, nowadays, that Joe Bruno would be interested in getting every scrap of paper from the late Spitzer administration before public scrutiny as quickly as possible.) Some administrations, such as Cuomo’s have been very forthcoming, and have turned over almost all of their records (though almost every administration, according to Folts, destroys their appointment files, the record of who got what government position and why.)

This is becoming a distressingly common phenomena; top government officials holding back their papers, or systematically combing through them (as did Rudolph Giuliani after leaving City Hall.) There have been all sorts of rumbles from the current administration in Washington (hard drives cleansed, documents gone missing) to make it clear that the administration of Bush II will become the least well documented presidential administration in recent history.

It has occurred to me that we are perhaps living in the twilight of the archival age. First, there is an obsession with how “history will judge” current politicians. (Has any president been subject to more articles about his eventual ranking among his peers than George W. Bush? And we know how it will all turn out; most scholars will think him the worst or among the worst of all time, nosing out Buchanan. A few idiots will write books defending Bush and his war, and learned commentators will sagely note that “there is much dispute about George W. Bush’s place in history.”)

And there is the additional problem of the presidential libraries, where every president now has the right to design their own monument, and the very idea of preserving any records that might becloud the reputation of the honoree becomes problematic. To which might be added the reality that the destroying of presidential or gubernatorial papers, if no evident crime is being covered up, probably is cost free to the destroyer. Archivists and historians will howl, a law suit might be filed that will drag out for years, and in the end, the worst that would likely happen are some slapped wrists.

And there is the ironic impact of the internet and email, which of course have replaced, to a large extent, phone calls. Private correspondence used to represent the tip of the iceberg of an administration’s record; often several phone calls were exchanged before a letter was written, summarizing the conversations, and the written record was often a sanitized or bowdlerized version of the phone tconversations. Now with email, the first, and often, uncensored thoughts of officials are captured directly, and with our ability to preserve records, comes an even greater desire on the part of many officials to hide it from scrutiny. And government has become such an exercise in secrecy, and keeping information from the public, that the “right to know” even after an administration is long gone from power, becomes an exercise in lese majestie. We live as much as in age of secrecy as an age of information; never before in human history have more people spent more time and more money in keeping things secret. This is bound to effect the future of archives. The more we can know, the more we can hide.

Anyway, to return to Pataki, what is needed is for historians and anyone else who cares about the past, present, or future of New York State , to demand that he turn over his records to the NYS Archives. (And with a Dem in the Governor’s mansion, perhaps now is the time to get a bill on gubernatorial records past the Senate.) And we must remember and enforce the old rules; when records are withheld, we are entitled to the presumption that the withholder has something to hide. And though the phenomena of document-withholders like Pataki is very distressing, I must say that in some ways it is satisfying that in the highly hyped information age, when our ability to preserve records has taken quantum leaps over what was possible only decades ago, one of the greatest resources available to the historian and journalist will likely continue to remain the age-old tools of gossip, innuendo, calumnies by interested parties with axes to grind, and ill-sourced speculation. Dame rumor will likely continue to blather, triumphing over all well-meaning efforts to get her to hold her tongue.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I wonder what, if anything, they could be hiding by withholding documents. Hmmm. Have you ever heard of Tammany Hall ?? Well, we're now living Tammany Hall II - See: