Archival Rivals: Clinton & Co

Article excerpt

Forget Whitewater for a moment. One of the nastiest political battles in Washington is brewing at the National Archives. The brawl is over who will be the next National Archivist--the person who monitors the creation and maintenance of the country's historical record. The archives have been neck-deep in controversy lately. In the final days of George Bush, archivist Don Wilson signed a questionable agreement granting Bush exclusive control of all computer records of his presidency; soon after, Wilson took a high-paid job as executive director of the Bush presidential library center. A 1992 Senate inquiry found that Wilson's inspector general was a corrupt bumbler. Archives officials, yielding to the arguments of lawyers for Richard Nixon, have sat on Watergate records for twenty years. Most important, the National Archives generally has failed to seek electronic records of the federal government and to protect them aggressively. It also has been besieged by management problems and internal rifts, some boiling over onto the pages of the right-wing Washington Times, which has carried blistering articles on acting archivist Trudy Peterson. She is well regarded by leading historians and archivists but has peeved the right by assigning poor performance ratings to top archives officials associated with the shenanigans under Wilson, a Reagan appointee.

To date, the Clinton Administration has not performed admirably with respect to the archives. Last summer it withdrew the name of distinguished Princeton historian Stanley Katz for National Archivist after he was attacked by conservatives as a left ideologue. Now the White House is looking to fill the job with Peterson, Smith College president Mary Maples Dunn or Robert Hardesty, a past president of Southwest Texas State University and aide to L.B.J. The prospect of a Hardesty appointment has enraged archivists and historians. The National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History, the American Historical Association and the Society of American Archivists oppose his nomination. Hardesty, his critics say, is a political hack with no suitable experience. His appointment would be an affront to the law that demands the archivist be chosen "without regard to political affiliations" and solely on the basis of professional qualifications. But Hardesty, a longtime Democratic Party activist and campaign consultant, has influential friends pushing his candidacy, including Jack Valenti, the former Johnson aide who now heads the Motion Picture Association of America.

The National Archives needs a leader independent of the White House and the politicos, for the archivist often is drawn into disputes concerning Presidents past and present. …