A clean, well-lighted public right
By Paul Gullixson
In the book “Team of Rivals,” author Doris Kearns Goodwin details a private meeting in early 1865 between President Lincoln and a commission sent by Confederate President Jefferson Davis to discuss terms for peace.
When Lincoln’s critics in Congress – particularly the “radicals” who wanted the Confederate states to not only be defeated but to be reorganized and renamed – got wind of the meeting, they were in a “rage of fury.” They feared the president was going to turn his back on emancipation and agree to a two-nation truce. They demanded the president report on what happened.
Lincoln didn’t balk. He turned over everything – including the telegrams and documents that preceded the meeting. The information showed the president would accept nothing but unconditional surrender and restoration of the Union, terms unacceptable to the Davis commission.
When the president’s presentation to Congress was done, a journalist wrote, “there was an instant and irrepressible storm of applause . .. it was like a burst of refreshing rain after a long and heartbreaking drought.”
Such transparency was common in those days when the doors of the White House were routinely open to anyone who would like to shake hands with the president. Lincoln often referred to how the residence did not belong to him, and he showed it.
It’s hard not to contrast that with a New York Times story last week about how American historians are struggling to get information out of the current presidential administration. Writers still can’t get the White House to turn over documents related to a meeting between George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev in December 1989, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The irony is that the Russians released transcripts from this meeting 14 years ago.
The problem is rooted in an executive order President George W. Bush signed in 2001 restricting the release of presidential papers, from this or any previous administration. The order has made an already slow process absolutely glacial.
Thomas Blanton, executive director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University, testified at a congressional hearing this month that the wait for documents at the Reagan Presidential Library was 18 months in 2001. Today, it’s 6½ years.
It’s no wonder that 70 percent of Americans believe the federal government is “secretive,” according to a recent survey by the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Only one in four believes that it is “open.”
The study was released in recognition of national Sunshine Week, which starts today and runs through Saturday. I usually have a low tolerance for these kinds of designated weeks or days – although I have “Talk Like a Pirate Day” marked on my home calendar.
But Sunshine Week does not promote any particular special interest or product. It promotes a vital public interest – the importance of open government and the freedom of information.
(OK, full disclosure here: As board president of the California First Amendment Coalition, I’m state coordinator for this year’s Sunshine Week campaign, but I don’t get so much as a tote bag for any of that. Go to sunshineweek.org and cfac.org for more information.)
There needs to be some means for educating the public and underscoring the importance of all of this. That more education is needed is without question.
Last year, a study by the McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum found that Americans know less about the First Amendment than they do about Bart and Homer Simpson.
Only one in four Americans could name more than one of the freedoms enumerated by the First Amendment (speech, press, religion, assembly and petition). But more than half could name at least two members of “The Simpsons” family. One in four could name all five. (What was the name of the baby, again?)
The problem is that the First Amendment, like a muscle, will atrophy without exercise. And the result will be a government much like the one we have now – that operates under a presumption of secrecy rather than openness.
And it doesn’t stop with the White House.
Having worked with CFAC for six years, I can tell you there are examples every day of reporters and citizens who go to the front desk of a local police department or city hall, requesting documents that are clearly public – by virtue of either the Freedom of Information Act or the California Public Records Act – but they are turned away or discouraged in numerous ways. They are asked the unnecessary and invasive question “why?” Sometimes they are asked to show ID. Often they are told to wait – sometimes for periods of time that render the request useless.
But there is no clause in the Constitution that says a citizen has a right to know what the government is doing – as long as he or she has a good reason and public employees are feeling up to it.
The First Amendment only functions when the public understands its rights and the person on the other side of the counter, be it the president or a public clerk, understands that he or she must err on the side of openness, not secrecy.
It was a principle Lincoln refused to relinquish, even amid civil strife, and steadfastly believed was a tool, not an obstacle, for a lasting peace.
It’s an idea that could use a little more sunshine today.
© 2007 The Press Democrat
Paul Gullixson, assistant editorial director of The Press Democrat in Santa Rosa, CA., is Board President of CFAC.