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Don’t Shoot the Archivist
Spread love to the record keepers.
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WASHINGTON D.C., UNITED STATES MAY 1970: Watergate Hotel in 70's. Courtesy of Shutterstock
The political chaos caused by the Watergate scandal was legendary. It was a landmark moment regarding our historic skepticism towards the affairs of government and the expansion of its powers.
So, I can only imagine what living in the 1970s was like. From studying, it most likely meant inheriting an America undergoing deep changes to its culture, politics, and demographics. Much of this translated into major systemic shifts.
These reforms were catalyzed by the Watergate episode.
In Richard Nixon’s first run for president he lost to John F. Kennedy in the first televised debate. In his second run, Nixon built his new image by utilizing television’s sleekness and simplicity.
But, in an ironic turn of events, highly-televised Senate hearings and a tenacious press defeated his presidency.
Much of the evidence emanated from the White House tapes that recorded conversations between Richard Nixon and his close advisors from 1972.
The initial break-in wasn’t seen as an issue within a scrupulous White House culture until investigative stories coming out of The Washington Post threatened to undermine Richard Nixon’s re-election. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein even reported that the F.B.I. determined the burglary was part of a campaign espionage scheme on behalf of the Nixon team. They had been dripping connections since the event initially happened.
The scandal even found it’s way into a George McGovern ad:
After Nixon’s reelection, court rulings against those involved in the break-in helped unravel a White House conspiracy rife with paranoia and dirty tricks. James McCord, one of the burglars, decided it was in his best interest to talk. The premeditated scheme to break in to the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters within the Watergate Hotel now came to light.
John Dean was another high-profile betrayal for the White House. He let prosecutors know that the Committee for the Re-election of the President (or C.R.E.E.P) was derived from a group that broke into Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office.
There were active hearings in the United States Senate by the spring of 1973. Dean revealed Nixon’s infamous enemies list:
Press scrutiny and legal inquiries in 1973 started to reveal lines of connections between the president and the burglary. As a response, Nixon continued to throw his officials and staff under the bus. Most notably, he ousted attorneys general who refused to fire the special prosecutor that demanded the president turn over the tapes. Eventually, Robert Bork took up the mantle and fired the special prosecutor, Archibald Cox. This consecutive line of firings dubbed “The Saturday Night Massacre” displayed a cavalier paranoia that unnerved the federal government’s balance of powers.
The 37th president eventually released the tapes after being subpoenaed by the House of Representatives. He offered them to the public in redacted form and they were read on television. A dark side of the White House was revealed to many and it thoroughly damaged any remaining sense of a regal authority that was once associated with past administrations like Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and John F. Kennedy.
Nixon eventually resigned from office under the threat of impeachment. The “smoking gun” was another conversation between Nixon and his close aide, H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, that was recorded on June 23, 1972; it revealed a plot to get the FBI Director to overlook the break-in.
The Watergate president’s legacy was thoroughly tarnished.
John Dean reflects in a recent book. He argues the gap likely contains incriminating details about the cover up efforts. However, he also suggests whatever was in the recording was likely said already in another set of tapes. Dean also concludes that the gap was likely caused by intentional tampering and was not by accident.
The Presidential Records Act
The Trump administration was no stranger to breaking the Presidential Records Act. This was one of the post-Watergate reforms by Congress. It gives official guidelines to presidential record keeping but is lacking in its description of ways to enforce these parameters. Trump reportedly tore up records and gave world leaders his personal cellphone number. He was sued over his son-in-law’s handling of historical documents.
The most recent violations potentially come from reports of a 7-hour gap in the White House call logs from January 6, 2021. The same day that a Trump-inspired mob attacked the halls of Congress during the procedure that transfers power from one president to the next. Not only did the National Archives have to retrieve boxes from Mar-A-Lago containing confidential materials, they also were in court with Trump over records he didn’t want released based on his claims of executive privilege.
The disgraced former president was not successful in all of his efforts to block information from being released.
It was reported in 2018 that analyst and record keepers were spending time taping together documents that were ripped apart and then sending them to the National Archives and Records Administration. Sometimes, these documents resembled confetti. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, the National Security Archive, and the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations have all continuously sued Trump over his administration’s handling of official documents.
*The court rejected the C.R.E.W. lawsuit in 2020 and the National Security Archive’s complaints were considered moot or dismissed by the courts.
The manipulation of truth is fundamental when despots institute false histories that facilitate authoritarian motives. It’s a classic tactic for those lusting for power - no matter if the dissent into darkness is a tragic twist or a foreseen outcome.
The intentional mistreatment of records reveal a deep irreverence within the Trump administration for the history and the legacy of America’s presidency. (As well as it’s continuous traditions.) The current revelations may feel like another cascade of swirling political corruption that will inevitably be normalized. But keeping in mind the larger trends can help understand changing events and potential motives.
The Trump years revealed a political culture in America that coalesces around power more often than it does for traditions or for a sense of sustainability. Even though this has always been the case throughout instances of human history, leaders are now engaging in these behaviors and incentive structures in a prolonged manner with ease.
Upon reflecting on the America my age group inherited, we can conclude that we have a comfortable nation with relatively open access to information. Our forbearers had to fight in despotic nations or survive domestic authoritarian to make the current nation possible. In this process, many Americans developed a healthy respect for learning and open thought after seeing the perils of opposing norms and antidemocratic prejudices.
We should be proud of these efforts.
Remembering them helps us develop an understanding around the work of archivist: preserving and collecting the materialization of our memory and our shared history.
Washington DC, USA - July 3, 2017: National Archives building in summer with sculpture garden fountain on National Mall. Courtesy of Shutterstock.