recognition of the sensitive role of the archivist, Congress created an independent agency, the National Archives and Records Administration; gave the archivist an unlimited term in office; and required that a president, to replace an archivist, must explain why. No such explanation has been offered by the Bush administration. It approached Mr. Weinstein about the job in September 2003, and a few months later pushed the current archivist, John W. Carlin, to resign, without providing any reason either to Congress or Mr. Carlin, a former Kansas governor named to the post by President Bill Clinton in 1995.
This is a good start in explaining the problem. It does not, however, note that besides the opinions of the Post Editorial Board the Society of American Archivists also has some serious reservations with the appointment. In a statement drawn up in July 2004, the board of the SAA expressed these reservations:
It is our view that this nomination was undertaken outside both the letter and the spirit of the law. We believe that the evidence is clear that the White House effectively removed John Carlin when it asked him for a letter of resignation in December 2003 after having already identified a replacement in the fall of that year. It is within the power of the President to remove the Archivist, but if he takes this action, the law calls for him to provide Congress with an explanation of his reasons for doing so. To date, no such explanation has been provided. We hope that the Committee will ask the White House to fulfill its obligation under the law rather than create another precedent that erodes the power and authority of the United States Congress. [emphasis theirs]
As the SAA noted in their Joint Statement on Selection Criteria a month later:
To be fair to Dr. Weinstein, the discussion that the SAA called for did, in fact, take place, albeit largely in a private, informal, setting. However, almost a year after Dr. Weinstein's initial nomination as Archivist of the U.S., the president has still not given any indication of why Dr. Weinstein's predecessor, John Carlin, was asked to resign, nor of how or why Dr. Weinstein was chosen from the hundreds of archivists or historians who would have potentially been qualified for the position.
In the end, SAA ended up neither endorsing nor opposing Dr. Weinstein's appointment, likely out of a pragmatic realization that he would be confirmed and that the country's largest professional archivist association would need to have a good working relationship with the nominal head of governmental archives activity. However, the seemingly arbitrary process that led to Gov. Carlin's dismissal and Dr. Weinstein's nomination casts doubt on the continued political independence of NARA and its associated agencies.
Carlin was dismissed right before Bush 41's papers were to become available to the public under the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act; this seems unlikely to be a coincidence. As someone working in a number of archives, I know from experience that it is VERY easy for an archivist to drag his/her feet on making a collection accessible; especially for a collection as massive as the files of a President's Office, the archivist really has to want to release the files to get them out on time. Bush 43, as evidenced by his executive order earlier in his term extending restrictions on presidential papers, does not want this; in light of what appears to be an obviously political appointment, it will remain to be seen whether Dr. Weinstein will want it, or will be able to want it.
I'd like to give Dr. Weinstein the benefit of the doubt, but this kind of activity sets a dangerous precedent. If this really was a nakedly political appointment, it means that the administration has a man on the "inside" who will dictate what records can and cannot see the light of day. In light of all of the, I'll be generous and say "exaggerations", that this administration is demonstratably guilty of, it's just a few steps from keeping old presidential records under wraps to deciding, say, that fairly-current state-department bulletins are not worth releasing to the public. The Archivist of the U.S. does not have term limits; as such, a politically-tinged person in that position potentially undermines the usefulness of FOIA in particular and NARA in general.
I'm going to be keeping an eye out for Archives-related and government information-related shenanigans over the next four year. For the sake of the freedom of information in this country, I would advise anyone reading this to do the same.