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Sunday, May 19, 2024

It has been said that the winners write the history books. If Executive Order 13233 isn't repealed, the mediocre and incompetent will get their chance.

Executive Order 13233, signed by President Bush in November 2001, not one year after his inauguration and not two months after the national trauma of Sept. 11, renders the Presidential Records Act of 1978 practically meaningless.

Congress passed the PRA in the wake of Watergate, the scandal that forced President Richard Nixon to resign in disgrace and shook the American people's trust in their government to the core. The PRA mandates the release of most presidential records 12 years after a president leaves office. Its enactment rests on the crazy idea that the official records of the president are the property of the people.

The new order serves to impede our access to these records by granting ex-presidents the power to withhold documents from the public indefinitely without any explanation. It also permits presidents to designate individuals to act on their behalf - to withhold records - after they are deceased. Further, Bush's royal decree gives incumbent presidents unfettered power to seal the records of their predecessors, even if past presidents have authorized their release - Bush has already used his odious order to withhold some of President Ronald Reagan's records from public scrutiny.

In light of Executive Order 13233, the only recourse historians, journalists or anyone else now has for attempting to gain access to presidential papers is a daunting, time- and resource-consuming legal battle.

Why is this important? Why should we care about the substantive inner workings - the confidential conversations and directives - of the Bush Administration, or any other past or future administration?

We should care because it's through these documents that we're able to recognize the triumphs and learn from the failures of our government.

These records enable historians to interpret the actions of our presidents and to measure those actions against the broader range of events that shape what we call history. It's in this way that historians, as well as "we the people," are able to assess the decisions our leaders make and determine their legacy and where they rank in the pantheon of presidents.

It's not surprising that President Bush would want to prevent posterity from learning just "how deep the rabbit-hole goes." Iraq. Katrina. Torture. The Patriot Act. Halliburton. Blackwater. The failures and scandals are too many to recall, let alone completely list here.

But who knows? Perhaps many of us are wrong about George W. Bush. Perhaps history will treat him more like President Harry Truman than President James Buchanan - the former was unpopular during his tenure, but is now widely considered one of the best presidents of the 20th century, the latter sat idly by as the Union disintegrated and is considered by many historians to be the worst president ever. At least until now.

Perhaps we're wrong. But I doubt it. One thing's for sure: We'll never know for certain if Bush successfully denies us full access to his presidential records.

More than a year ago, the House of Representatives voted to override Executive Order 13233 by a veto-proof majority of 333-93. Since then the bill has languished in the Senate, reportedly thanks to a pair of Republican senators who have prevented it from coming up for a vote. The House has done its job (for once). It's now time for the Senate to take action. Executive Order 13233 must be revoked.

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Joshua Fredrickson is a political science senior. His column appears on Wednesdays.

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