Clock at Carnegie Library, Little Falls, MN, 2018.
history pragmatic historian

Who Does the National Archives Serve?

On July 30, 2018, a tweet from Senator Dianne Feinstein appeared in my Twitter feed.

Senator Dianne Feinstein tweet regarding the Presidential Records Act and National Archives , July 30, 2018.
Senator Dianne Feinstein tweet regarding the Presidential Records Act and National Archives , July 30, 2018.

Feinstein’s tweet reads (in case the image doesn’t appear):

The Presidential Records Act makes clear that White House records, including Brett Kavanaugh’s, belong to the American people. Now, the National Archives is refusing to provide those records to Democrats so we can vet his nomination. This has NEVER happened. #ReleaseTheRecords

I was so shocked that the National Archives (full name: National Archives and Records Administration, a.k.a. NARA) would play partisan politics that I tweeted the following to NARA:

Mary Warner's reply to the National Archives regarding Senator Dianne Feinstein's tweet, July 30, 2018.
Mary Warner’s reply to the National Archives regarding Senator Dianne Feinstein’s tweet, July 30, 2018.

My tweet reads:

This true, @USNatArchives? If so, remember you work for the American people, not the Trump admin. Seriously, don’t be on the wrong side of history on this. 

The Purpose of the National Archives

The purpose of the National Archives is to save important documents generated by the federal government. This purpose is stated clearly on the National Archives’ About page:

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is the nation’s record keeper. Of all documents and materials created in the course of business conducted by the United States Federal government, only 1%-3% are so important for legal or historical reasons that they are kept by us forever.

Those valuable records are preserved and are available to you, whether you want to see if they contain clues about your family’s history, need to prove a veteran’s military service, or are researching an historical topic that interests you.

Note the phrase I have put in bold there. These records are preserved for us, citizens of the United States, not specifically for any particular politician or political party. Included within us are all of our politicians and parties.

Using History to Vet Candidates

That’s why Feinstein’s tweet came as such a shock. I simply couldn’t believe the National Archives would withhold requested information that was needed to vet a candidate for the Supreme Court. Because this is a position with a life appointment, proper vetting is critical.

This points out a very important use of history — sound decision-making. We need history to help us make decisions using the best information we have at hand. That includes the vetting of political candidates and other government officials using past documentation of their actions, decisions and policies.

Those of us who work in archives, museums and history organizations dedicated to serving the public are serious about sharing what’s in our collections, regardless of the politics involved. It’s why the public puts a lot of trust in our organizations. We don’t want to betray that trust. I was worried that the National Archives was putting politics above its public mission.

Response from the National Archives

I don’t know what the National Archives communicated regarding Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s records that led to Senator Feinstein’s tweet, but I can tell you that the National Archives says it is responding to the request for records. In a news item posted to its website on August 1, 2018, the National Archives states:

NARA is working on an expedited basis to release prioritized records related to Judge Kavanaugh, in accordance with the Presidential Records Act, the Federal Records Act, and the Freedom of Information Act, just as we have done with previous Supreme Court nominees.

The National Archives goes on to explain that they have millions of pages of documentation related to Judge Kavanaugh, many more than previous recent Supreme Court nominees who worked in the White House. Presumably, this volume means it’s going to take the National Archives some time to release everything. Read the full news item to find links to where this information will be released.

Who Does the National Archives Serve?

A Washington Post article, “‘Unprecedented partisan interference:’ Senate escalates bitter fight over Kavanaugh’s record,” sheds some light on Feinstein’s tweet regarding the National Archives. According to the article, the Democrats in the Senate asked for all the documents regarding Kavanaugh’s White House service, but the Republican majority only asked for a subset of the documents.

Two paragraphs at the end of the WaPo article raise more questions about the National Archives than they answer:

It’s also unclear how much the archives may be willing to entertain the Democrats’ request, considering they aren’t in the Senate majority and do not control the committee. In a letter to Feinstein last week, a top archives official said the power of a committee to make such document requests “lies exclusively” with the chairman. 

In a separate letter to the archives this week, [Senator Charles] Grassley also noted that when Republicans had requested documents from presidential libraries when they did not hold the majority, they had been denied. 

Does the National Archives shift with a change in political winds? Does it really only properly serve the party that’s in power? What about citizens’ rights to access this information? Could a citizen request the Kavanaugh data and get it? If so, why can’t the minority party in Congress? Who does the National Archives serve anyway?

So, then, National Archives, my question remains: Are you putting politics ahead of your mission to serve the people of this nation?