- Personal versus Private: Presidential Records in a Legislative Context: A Bibliographic Exploration
Public, academic, and legislative interest in the management of records created by U.S. presidents has increased since President George W. Bush signed Executive Order (EO) 13233 in November 2001. The heightened level of secrecy in the Bush administration has caused additional scrutiny of the complex legislation governing stewardship of these records. Personal versus Privatedelivers a [End Page 228]comprehensive bibliography of works concerning legislative and executive initiatives to control the records of the president. Author Peter Sezzi’s thesis-turned-book offers “a way to approach the massive amount of material generated not only about the PRA [Presidential Records Act], but also about the issues related to the public ownership of and access to the records and documents of federal officials” (xi).
The first two sections of the book acquaint the reader with the history of legislation surrounding records created or received by the president. Part 1, “Narrative Overview of Legislative Control of Presidential Records,” presents a history of major legislation governing these records since President Franklin Roosevelt formally donated his papers to the United States in 1939. Sezzi provides the reader not only with a history of the legislation but also with an analysis of relationships among the pieces of legislation. Part 2, “Bibliographic Essay Concerning Legislative Control of Presidential Records,” builds upon the history by exploring twenty-three topics Sezzi formulated while compiling the bibliography, ranging from “Why History?” to “After Nixon: The Public Documents Commission and the Presidential Records Act of 1978.” While Sezzi does not incorporate in the essays all the works cited in his bibliography, he draws attention to the most important ones by placing them in the context of particular topics.
The bibliography, part 3, is the heart of the book. The entries are listed first by format, such as “Congressional Record,” “Monograph,” and “Signed Journal Articles,” and then alphabetically. Following the bibliography are four helpful appendixes: executive orders related to ownership of or access to the records of the president, the passage of the six bills directly relating to these records, cross-referencing and indexing the judicial cases listed in the bibliography, and offering contact information for archival institutions that house presidential records.
While the bibliography is timely and thorough, Personal versus Privatecontains several troubling factual misrepresentations and errors. These range from the straightforward, including claiming that the National Archives was “established under the presidency of Herbert Hoover” (48), to misrepresentations of the legislation and executive orders presented in the book, such as suggesting that Executive Order 13233 made records created by the president less accessible by placing them under the Freedom of Information Act.
In fact, several classes of executive documents are not subject to FOIA. These include the records of a sitting president but not of executive branch agencies and the records of presidents serving before Ronald Reagan. FOIA, however, is the mechanism for access to records created or received under the Presidential Records Act (after January 20, 1981). 1
The discussion of EO 13233 is equally troubling. On page 19 Sezzi writes that “because the Bush executive order may place presidential documents in a position of being technically accessible, if tangibly unobtainable, some have called for the extension of FOIA to presidential records” (19). Later, the author argues that the release of documents is inhibited because “the E.O. effectively makes presidential records more FOIA-accessible and thus more easily controllable from the creator’s end, but more difficult to access from the user’s end” (22). In actuality, EO 13233 does not make the records of former presidents less accessible by placing them under the Freedom of Information Act; rather, the inaccessibility originates from provisions granting both the incumbent and creating president the right to withhold from release documents sought under the Freedom of Information Act. [End Page 229]
Personal versus Privatepresents the Presidential Libraries Act (PLA) as the defining moment in federal stewardship of presidential records. As such, the bibliographic...