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Published: Monday, 2/17/2003

A new British openness

The contrast between the British government and the Bush administration vis- -vis public records is striking in light of our Presidential Records Act.

In effect since 1981, that law for the first time assured that presidential records belong not to the president but to the people. And it opened them 12 years after a president leaves office.

In Britain records destined for secrecy for 100 years have just been opened after 30, and, the public records office says, historical data will continue to be made public earlier unless national security issues are in play. Of particular interest to gossip mongers were reports related to the abdicated king, Edward VII and his American divorcee wife, Wallis Warfield Simpson.

These include security reports indicating they were under close government watch, as were the other men in her life, including a smooth-talking, married used-car salesman to whom she gave expensive presents. One gets the sense that being royalty isn't conducive to a private life.

In contrast, two years ago President Bush held up release of documents from the Reagan administration and later issued a new executive order to the effect that both former presidents and sitting presidents must agree to release presidential papers, and researchers must give good reasons to get access to them.

This arrogant and self-serving order defies a law of the Congress passed after the Nixon Watergate scandal. It was the new openness of presidential records that let Americans know about the Iran-Contra scandal, the Cuban missile crisis, and even Watergate. It was this law that let us hear President Lyndon Johnson's private phone chats with aides.

Far too few citizens are upset by the loss, a point underscored here in Toledo the other day by the man who sued to win release of the Nixon White House Watergate tapes.

Stanley Kutler, discussing the Nixon years during an appearance on The Editors TV program, noted that all presidents have a tendency toward secrecy but added that the Bush White House is especially consumed with it.

What is Mr. Bush trying to hide?

No one can read his mind, but his administration has hired from the old Reagan staff, including Colin Powell, Mitch Daniels, and the since-fired Lawrence Lindsey. Also, the President's father was Mr. Reagan's vice president and George H.W. Bush's papers are scheduled for release in 2005.

Britain gets it. The American President doesn't. It is a fact that democracies thrive on openness, whether it reflects the rather vapid lives of the Windsors or the mindset of a president.

Anything less short-changes us.



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