Presidential Records Act
The AHA’s History Behind the Headlines Webinar
On April 4, a webinar co-sponsored by the Society of American Archivists and the AHA, History Behind the Headlines: Presidential Records Act, brought together historians and archivists to discuss the challenges of how presidential records are collected, archived, and preserved. Moderated by Peniel E. Joseph (Univ. of Texas at Austin), the conversation ranged from the passage of the Presidential Records Act in 1978, to the role of the National Archives in preserving federal records, and why they matter to the American public.
Historian Nicole Hemmer (Vanderbilt Univ.), who studies 20th-century American politics and the presidency, identified the Presidential Records Act as part of a broader push for reform after the Watergate scandal and the Church Committee investigation of abuses by federal intelligence agencies. Until the 1950s, there had been no laws governing the preservation of federal documents, and presidential papers were considered the president’s private property. The Presidential Records Act, which went into effect in 1981, reclassified them as public records to which the American public deserved access. As Hemmer said, “Creating these records, getting them, and getting them past the wall of classification is a challenge for making sure as many of these records are publicly available as possible.”
The panelists emphasized that the Presidential Records Act was designed as a check on presidential power. Timothy Naftali (New York Univ.), founding director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, emphasized that presidents have continuously looked for ways to lessen the law’s power. “Presidents are interested in legacy,” Naftali said. “Accountability depends on evidence, and the documents—the materials, since we’re in a digital age now—that’s evidence of good things and bad things. One of the checks upon a president is that if they do something wrong, somebody will find out.” And when documents that might show misuse of power come to light, the law upholds “profound consequences, particularly in an era of an imperial presidency.”
Until the 1950s, there had been no laws governing the preservation of federal documents, and presidential papers were considered the president’s private property.
The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) plays an essential role in collecting, preserving, and making available the records governed by this law. As a certified archivist and the acting Archivist of the United States from 1993–95, Trudy Huskamp Peterson knows firsthand the importance of NARA’s role. The passage of the Presidential Records Act put the archivist and NARA in a unique bind: the archives sit within the executive branch, and the archivist is appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. As Peterson explained, the archivist can give opinions to the president on records, yet only Congress can overrule the president. Since records are turned over to the archives after a presidency ends, the archivist often negotiates with the former president—who frequently does not belong to the same political party as the president who appointed the archivist. And if the former administration resists releasing certain records, negotiations must be held with the current president. So the archivist is embedded in the federal government, yet must hold themselves apart from partisan politics. “You have to be neutral, and show that you are neutral, all the time,” Peterson said.
The Presidential Records Act has recently been in the news because former president Donald Trump, former vice president Mike Pence, and president Joe Biden have all been found to have records in their personal residences or vacation homes. Naftali distinguished between these cases, saying that “the devil is in the details.” Based on the number and type of documents, Naftali said that the Pence and Biden cases seem to be oversights. Yet the Trump case is more troubling. Trump was warned by his lawyer Pat Cipollone that boxes of materials had to be turned over to the National Archives, but he ignored the warning. When asked to return the materials, he didn’t. When the FBI searched Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence, there were far more materials and some of them were classified. (Peterson clarified that these laws do not only apply to classified records: “The press has picked up on that and has overdone it. The majority of presidential records are not security classified.”) Naftali reminded the audience that this is a constitutional issue. In talking about these cases, we must be clear: “Both are a problem, but one is a major threat to the Presidential Records Act and the others were inadvertent.” And such contestation is not new. “The enforcement mechanism is a mess,” Hemmer said, and arguments over what should be included in presidential records have led to conflicts over who is responsible for and ultimately controls the materials.
“Both are a problem, but one is a major threat to the Presidential Records Act and the others were inadvertent.”
As Joseph reminded the audience, presidential records are vital to shaping the narrative of a presidency. Hemmer has found that working in presidential records helps you to see how the presidency stretches beyond the elected official—countless staff members are working with and around the administration. In doing oral histories with members of the Obama administration, for instance, she has been reminded that “they’re not that different from me.” “Our country is run by citizens. Presidential records can really help us to appreciate and understand that.”
For historians and history students, Naftali said that “it is a great time to be interested in American history and to be asking big questions about presidents.” More and more records are being digitized and are therefore more accessible online. He encouraged undergraduate and graduate students to ask what records might exist and go look for them—“an exciting treasure hunt” may await.
Laura Ansley is managing editor at the AHA. She tweets @lmansley.
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