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Records Trickle Out of Reagan Library

Only 10% of 55 million pages at the facility near Simi Valley are public.

June 13, 2004|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

The unvarnished story of the Ronald Reagan presidency, scholars and historians agree, is buried deep within the 55 million pages of presidential documents housed at his library near Simi Valley.

Will history remember the nation's 40th president as the master politician and Cold War hero portrayed in countless memorials last week?

Or will his legacy be marred by evidence of an increasingly out-of-touch president who ignored the AIDS epidemic, racked up an enormous national debt and then became entangled in an arms-for-hostages deal with Iran?

Scholars hope to answer those and other questions as they gain greater access to tons of documents at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library as they are released in batches over the years. But researchers may face some roadblocks.

Though the library opened in November 1991, only 10% of the papers from Reagan's eight years in office have been released, archivists said. That is partly because of the sheer volume of documents generated during his administration and the painstaking process of preparing such a historical mother lode for release, officials said.

Academics are more worried about an executive order issued by President Bush in 2001 that they say could indefinitely shield from public view, or at least further delay the release of, some of the late president's most sensitive documents.

The order bars archivists from releasing any former president's records without the approval of the sitting president and the former president, or a representative. Currently being challenged in court, the order overrides the Presidential Records Act of 1978, which established that a president's papers were not private property and set a 12-year limit on keeping communications between a president and his advisors secret.

To date, only 78 pages of documents have been withheld at the request of President Bush and former President Reagan, said Michael Duggan, supervisory archivist at the Reagan library. President Bush, whose father served as vice president during the Reagan years, has shown no interest in withdrawing or relaxing the order, historians say.

Also in play are the wishes of Reagan's family and his staunch GOP supporters. Under the Bush order, anyone named as Reagan's representative can continue to invoke executive privilege after his death. Joanne Drake, the late president's chief of staff, serves as his representative.

Drake was unavailable for comment late last week. But an official in her Westwood office said decisions about communications now shielded from public view wouldn't be made for weeks.

Scholars worry that supporters of a positive Reagan legacy might push to suppress documents that portray the former president in an unflattering light.

"If you want him to walk on water, fine. Just don't let that get in the way of access to the material," said Stanley I. Kutler, a retired constitutional scholar and a plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging the Bush order.

Historians, academics and journalists interested in reviewing the material said they have been encouraged by comments from Nancy Reagan. They say the former first lady has repeatedly indicated her support for opening up almost all of her late husband's records.

"Many academics see an ally in Nancy Reagan, and they take some comfort in that," said Jonathan Turley, a constitutional law professor at George Washington University.

Reagan biographer Martin Anderson recalled that when he helped edit "Reagan: A Life in Letters," Nancy Reagan worried that releasing her husband's handwritten messages and notes would be embarrassing to other people.

Anderson assured her that though that was true, releasing them would help people understand who her husband was.

"She thought about that and said, 'I want everything out there. I want people to know the real Ronnie,' " Anderson said.

Anderson, who worked inside Reagan's White House and has written several books about his legacy, said the late president's letters and speeches were the best reflection of his thought process and character. Anderson called his research at the library "indispensable."

"If you want to know the true Reagan, read his letters," he said. "He just laid everything out."

Next summer, the library is expected to become a tourist magnet when its Air Force One Pavilion opens. The 90,000-square-foot addition will house the blue and white Boeing 707 that flew Reagan all around the globe during his two terms as president, as well as his green Marine One helicopter and a presidential limousine.

One wall of the exhibit space will be solid glass, giving the illusion that visitors are high up in the sky, said library director Duke Blackwood.

"We're so far up on a hill that all you will see is rolling hills and blue sky," Blackwood said. "It's going to look like she's flying."

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