BROOKE GLADSTONE: Washington is a place where jobs change hands every day, and most attract no notice. But one resignation is generating considerable buzz -- that of National Archivist John Carlin. That may seem a little obscure, but the National Archivist has the power to determine how much of American history is written. The law requires the president to explain why the head of the National Archives is being replaced, but he has kept mum, and so has Carlin, a Clinton appointee and former Kansas governor. In his place, President Bush will nominate Allen Weinstein, a Democrat who has been denounced by many of his academic peers. One of them is Jon Wiener, a professor of history at the University of California at Irvine, and a contributing editor of The Nation magazine. Welcome to the show.
JON WIENER: Thanks for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, let's start with a little background on the role of the National Archivist. What exactly is this person responsible for?
JON WIENER: The National Archives is a, a huge operation, a budget of 300 million dollars, and they deal with a lot of controversial documents and whether to release them, including the Watergate tapes, the records of the Kennedy assassination, all the presidential papers. In part, these of course are governed by executive orders on classification, but the archivist has a lot to say about what gets released, to whom, and, and when.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, what about the laws that specify what is public and what is confidential?
JON WIENER:Well, every president is empowered to issue his own executive order on declassification, and some are more in favor of openness, some are more in favor of secrecy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Some administrations are more open than others? I guess this administration is decidedly less.
JON WIENER:This president has tried to undercut the Presidential Records Act which says that the records of presidents should become available to the public 12 years after they are recorded. It's interesting that his own father's papers would become eligible for release under this Presidential Records Act next January. This president has issued an order that kind of undermines and makes that whole thing irrelevant.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Is it true that under the Bush order, even a president who would like his records to be released can't have them released if the current president doesn't want them to?
JON WIENER: Yeah, it's, it's an amazing thing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now the National Archivist is one of those government positions that isn't supposed to be political. It has a ten year term that isn't linked to changes at the White House, or at least isn't supposed to be, but in recent weeks, there's some concern on the part of the archivist community that something fishy is going on here.
JON WIENER: Yeah, there's almost two dozen organizations of historians and archivists that have expressed concern about the nomination of Allen Weinstein and the way it has come about. Carlin was not planning to retire until July 2005. He'd always said he intended to serve for ten years. Carlin has also refused to comment in response to questions of whether the White House pressured him to withdraw, so I, I conclude the White House did pressure him to resign.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So then who is Allen Weinstein, and why are the historians and archivists upset about his appointment?
JON WIENER:Allen Weinstein is a historian of espionage who's closely connected with Republicans in Congress. He founded an organization called The Center for Democracy. Henry Kissinger is on the board. His own record of releasing documents that he's worked with in his research on Soviet espionage is, frankly, a poor one. He has concealed his own research materials, which violates the ethics of the Society of American Archivists and refused to make interview tapes available at an archive, which is what's required by the American Historical Association. So there's concern that a man who has a poor record on access to documents should not be in charge of access to documents for the whole country.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:His decision not to release the documents related to espionage, the Soviet documents that he had exclusive access to, wasn't that principally a commercial one?
JON WIENER: Well, Weinstein and his publisher, Random House, made a deal in the early '90s to pay a large amount of money, I've heard a hundred thousand dollars, to a group of former KGB agents for exclusive access to the KGB archives. That means Weinstein and his publisher paid an archive not to release these documents to anyone else. That's an ethical violation. Now it's understandable that a commercial publisher would want to make a profit off of exclusive information, but we would like the archivists of the United States to be held to a higher standard.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:And so how do you think the process should proceed? You think that Bush should cycle back -- that's not going to happen -- and talk to historians and archivists? What do you think is the best case scenario here?
JON WIENER: There will be Senate confirmation hearings, and any one senator can put a hold on a presidential nomination, which makes it much harder to get it through the Senate. I think there are enough concerns about Weinstein to justify holding up that nomination, and then it'll be postponed because of the election season.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jon Wiener, thank you very much.
JON WIENER: It's been my pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Jon Wiener is a professor of history at the University of California at Irvine, and a contributing editor of The Nation magazine. [MUSIC]