In December 1989, one month after the fall of the Berlin Wall, President George H. W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev met in Malta and, in the words of a Soviet spokesman, â€œburied the cold war at the bottom of the Mediterranean.â€
The Russian transcript of that momentous summit was published in Moscow in 1993. Fourteen years later American historians are still waiting for their own government to release a transcript.
Now lawmakers and scholars are hoping to pry open the gateway to such archival documents by lifting what they say has been a major obstacle to historical research: a directive issued by the current Bush White House in 2001 that has severely slowed or prevented the release of important presidential papers.
â€œI visited the Bush library in 1999, expecting to be able to look atâ€ the Malta transcript, said Thomas S. Blanton, executive director of an independent research institute called the National Security Archive at George Washington University. He filed a Freedom of Information Act request but said, â€œI still donâ€™t have it, and thereâ€™s no telling when I will.â€
President George W. Bushâ€™s 2001 executive order restricted the release of presidential records by giving sitting presidents the power to delay the release of papers indefinitely, while extending the control of former presidents, vice presidents and their families. It also changed the system from one that automatically released documents 30 days after a current or former president is notified to one that withholds papers until a president specifically permits their release.
Today the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform is scheduled to discuss a new bill that would overturn Mr. Bushâ€™s order, said a committee spokeswoman, Karen Lightfoot. The sponsors, who include the committee chairman, Henry A. Waxman, Democrat of California, hope to bring the bill to the floor of the House next week.
Allen Weinstein, the archivist of the United States, said yesterday that the order was not being used to prevent presidential papers from reaching the public, but that obviously â€œit has been increasing the time and delays, which are endemic.â€ The backlog of requests for documents now extends up to five years.
To Mr. Weinstein the biggest problem is the lack of resources and trained archivists. Every former president has brought a new flood of documents and prompted an increase in requests for them. Meanwhile a recent budget freeze has reduced the overall number of positions. Mr. Weinstein said his staff was working on ways to improve efficiency, like packaging similar types of requests together.
Mr. Blanton blamed the archiveâ€™s previous leadership for initially failing to respond to added pressures on the system. But he made clear that the latest executive order has significantly worsened the problem. At a congressional hearing last week he said that waiting time at the Reagan Presidential Library had increased to six and a half years from 18 months in 2001.
â€œThere was a fair, reasonable, orderly, clear, sensible and workable process for presidential records in place during the 1990s,â€ which Mr. Bushâ€™s executive order â€œoverturned and replaced with the opposite,â€ Mr. Blanton testified. It â€œis not just wrong, itâ€™s stupid.â€
The 1978 Presidential Records Act, part of the post-Watergate reforms, clearly gave the American public ownership of presidential papers, said the historian Robert Dallek, whose latest book, â€œNixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power,â€ is being published next month. But Mr. Bushâ€™s executive order, he said, has had the effect of returning ownership to presidents and their heirs.
Having written highly regarded histories of Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Ronald Reagan, Mr. Dallek said â€œmy experience has been, particularly with this new book, that there is a very different story to be told than a president and his representatives would like you to hear when you get to get inside and read the records.â€
He mined archives to put together his new book, which reveals that Henry A. Kissinger and Richard M. Nixon discussed early on the impossibility of winning the Vietnam War, as well as such unguarded moments as Mr. Kissinger referring to the South Vietnamese as â€œlittle yellow friends.â€
Presidents and the guardians of their legacies would prefer that such embarrassing details donâ€™t come out, Mr. Dallek said in a telephone interview. But archival evidence provides a â€œmuch more candid, honest picture of what they were thinking and what they were saying and the acts of deception they practiced,â€ he said. â€œIt is important for the country to hear and know.â€
The release of presidential papers and telephone transcripts have often transformed the way the public and scholars think of presidents. The presidential scholar Fred I. Greenstein used original staff notes of discussions to argue that Dwight D. Eisenhower, far from being ineffectual and uninvolved, was a remarkably engaged president who carefully orchestrated strategy during his two terms.
Documents that gave a clearer view of the extent of Woodrow Wilsonâ€™s and John F. Kennedyâ€™s debilitating illnesses â€” diligently concealed during their terms and after their deaths â€” have influenced the way people think about candidatesâ€™ physical and mental health, as well as the transfer of power in case a president is severely impaired. Mr. Blanton said he believes the Bush White House is primarily concerned with reversing what it sees as an erosion of presidential power after Watergate. â€œIt has the added advantage of giving the incumbent a lot more control over history,â€ he said.
Whether he is right about the Bush administrationâ€™s motives, though, is something no one will know until the presidentâ€™s own papers are released â€” whenever that might be.