Jewish World Review Dec. 3, 2001 / 18 Kislev, 5762

Paul Greenberg

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Consumer Reports

The secret presidency -- WHO says George W. Bush lacks the elegance, the know-how, the smarts to be president of the United States?

Look at what he's just done:

He's found a way to keep public records from the public.

He's pulled an end run around the law.

He's closed off a good portion of American history.

He's snubbed the principle of congressional oversight, and, while at it, found a way to discourage anybody who's just curious about the truth.

And he managed to accomplish all that by issuing just one executive order. Talk about elegance, talk about know-how, talk about smarts.

On his own authority, The Hon. George W. Bush overruled the law requiring that a president's papers be opened to the public 12 years after the end of his term -- with the exception of personal documents and those affecting national security.

The law was passed in the aftermath of Richard Nixon's unsuccessful attempt to keep his tape-recorded conversations from the American people. Now, in an act of nixonian arrogance, George W. Bush has made that reform moot.

Under that act, Ronald Reagan's official papers should have become public Jan. 20 of this year, or 12 years after he left the Oval Office. But the Bush administration first delayed the papers' release -- three times. Now it has decreed that, before presidential papers are released, not just the former president but the current one must concur. It's a kind of veto power over history.

Under this order, even when the documents are made available, they may be seen only by researchers who can show a ``demonstrated, specific'' need for them. A general interest in history, or just in truth, won't suffice.

At a time when even the Kremlin's archives are being opened, the land of the free is shutting down its. That stifled cry you hear is from Clio, muse of history. She's being fitted for blinders by this White House.

But the figure George W. Bush is most likely to hurt by his order is George W. Bush. For the most immediate effect of his action is to raise suspicions about his motives. Didn't a number of his high-ranking aides also serve in the Reagan administration -- like Colin Powell, now secretary of state? And wasn't this president's father No. 2 in that administration?

So the first question his executive order raises is: What's this president-and-son trying to hide? Democracy doesn't thrive in darkness, and neither does history. Both need sunlight.

Bush the Younger would do better to note the experience of another member of the Reagan administration. Do you remember Caspar Weinberger? He was the no-nonsense secretary of defense who, together with Ronald Reagan, brought American military power back from its low ebb during the Carter Years. Peace through strength, that policy was called, and it drove the Soviet Union first to distraction and then to bankruptcy and dissolution.

No, Caspar Weinberger wasn't exactly Mr. Personality. He tended to fade into the background when they took pictures of the Cabinet, and he was always more at home with numbers than with the usual Washington razzmatazz. But if anyone made the world safe for freedom, it was Cap Weinberger. He deserved a medal. So naturally he was charged with a crime.

This straightest of straight arrows was accused of perjury and obstruction of justice. A special prosecutor named Lawrence Walsh said Weinberger had sought to cover up his complicity in the Iran-Contra arms deal. Never mind that the secretary of defense had opposed that shady deal vociferously and in writing. And that he had objected forcefully, also in writing, when he found out what a couple of cowboys named Ollie North and Robert McFarlane had got an already vague Ronald Reagan into.

So what was the basis of these outlandish charges? (a) Caspar Weinberger had testified, truthfully enough, that he couldn't remember some details of Cabinet meetings two years before. And (b) he was also supposed to have hidden some notes he'd made on the subject.

As it turned out, he'd been so intent on keeping those notes secret that, when he left office, he'd turned all of them over to the Library of Congress, probably the most public depository in the world. If he was going to hide evidence of his guilt, why would he put it on display at a public library?

It was on the basis of this flimsy evidence that Caspar Weinberger was indicted. After a judge dismissed the charge of obstruction of justice, the special prosecutor simply reworded it and re-indicted Weinberger four days before the presidential election of 1992. How convenient for the opposition.

Bill Clinton, who has since grown less enamored of special prosecutors, hailed the indictment of Caspar Weinberger at the time. By the time the charge was exposed for what it was, the election was safely over.

Long before Caspar Weinberger was pardoned by Bush the Elder, any fair-minded observer could see what was going on. He'd been made the victim of a political vendetta by a prosecutor out to collect a presidential scalp.

At one point Cap Weinberger was offered a plea bargain but refused it, preferring to defend his honor instead. Yet if he had sealed those notes, instead of handing them over to the Library of Congress and leaving them open for inspection, he would still be suspected. Mr. Weinberger chose the path of candor, not secrecy. And is respected for it today. There's a lesson to be learned from his openness.

cc: The Hon. George W. Bush, The White House, Washington, D.C.

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