NORMAN, OKLA. — Kenneth W. Starr's investigation into President Bill Clinton's Whitewater affairs could have serious repercussions for historians trying to understand the Clinton presidency. Last week, the White House lost its appeal to keep the special prosecutor from questioning the president's close advisors. One of those aides, Sidney Blumenthal, a former journalist and the author of four books, has repeatedly said that most White House aides are afraid to take notes or keep a diary. "I don't put anything down in writing," Blumenthal says, reflecting the atmosphere in a White House where virtually everything is subject to subpoena.
Today, historians find themselves overwhelmed with information but knowing less about the exercise of power in Washington. The real business of politics takes place off the record, in unrecorded phone calls and one-on-one conversations. Starr has added new incentive for people to leave small footprints. We will still have history. It will just be bland and colorless.
The prospect of a White House without diaries and journals is chilling for historians who depend on contemporary materials to get a behind-the-scenes view. Official documents--memorandum, speeches, minutes of meetings--provide the bulk of information, but are sterile, often sanitized and usually devoid of personality and color. Contemporary observations by participants provide a mental snapshot that, when spliced together, provide a moving picture of the inner workings of an administration. Unlike memoirs written after the fact, diary entries and journals record the instant and spontaneous reactions of policy-makers to changing circumstances.
Those mental snapshots are an invaluable tool for historians trying to understand the complexity of the decision-making process, the range of available choices and the nuances of presidential leadership. We like to think of the past as tidy and linear: Great leaders making tough decisions, each one building inevitably toward the present. Often times, however, we impose a coherence on the past that was not apparent at the time. Contemporary accounts of key moments in history remind us that the past is often messy, full of twists and turns, and shaped by rivalries and competing ideologies.
Journals from the Roosevelt White House, for example, have exploded popular misconceptions of Franklin D. Roosevelt's leadership. Insiders paint a portrait of a sometimes devious and, especially after 1937, tired and indecisive leader. "It looks to me as if all the courage has oozed out of the president," Interior Secretary Harold L. Ickes noted in his diary.
Roosevelt's advisors, deeply divided into rival ideological camps, wanted the president to move decisively in one direction or another, but he relied on improvisation. Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. recorded that he was "terrifically shocked that the president . . . can't call for Plan A or Plan B or Plan C . . . . The president should have certain plans. He's got nothing." With Roosevelt failing to provide clear guidance, his advisors battled behind the scenes for the soul of the New Deal. Historians have built on these insights, confirming Richard Hofstadters's claim that the New Deal was "a chaos of experimentation."
Yet, historians must always look at these accounts with a skeptical eye. They are often self-serving and inevitably exaggerate the diarist's role. A good example is Col. Edward M. House, a wealthy Texan who emerged as Woodrow Wilson's closest friend and most trusted foreign-policy advisor. "He said he enjoyed talking with me," House recorded in 1913, "because he did not have to think about what he was saying."
House's detailed diary reveals a great deal about Wilson's personality, but even more about the colonel's own sense of self-importance. Though he had no experience in foreign affairs, and no official role in the administration, House was convinced he had a better understanding than Wilson of the impending crisis in Europe. "I find the president singularly lacking in appreciation of the importance of this European crisis," he complained in his diary. Over the next few years, House conducted his own foreign policy, often sabotaging Wilson's peace initiatives and trying to push the United States into World War I.
Many chief executives also have found refuge in a diary. For presidents who feel besieged by the prying eyes of a skeptical press and fickle loyalties of followers, diaries serve as an emotional sanctuary, a place to record thoughts they are not free to express. President Harry S. Truman filled his journal with threats of hanging labor leader John L. Lewis and nuking the Soviets, thoughts even "plain speaking" Truman did not dare say in public.