Saturday, February 9, 2008

Archives and history

I find myself frequently wondering how the Bush Administration will fare, historically. I like to think that, 150 years from now, all of my own opinions will be vindicated and stand as the accepted wisdom. A pleasant reverie, however unlikely. But it’s an interesting question, simply because Bush has firmly entrenched himself in his own private reverie – the expectation that ”History” will justify his actions and his contemporary critics will be shown up for short-sighted cowards. A pleasant reverie, however unlikely.

Which makes it so interesting that this Administration has been relentlessly hostile to preserving records. Bush & Co. have put an enormous amount of work into controlling the information that the public receives and have had more success than an American government should. But they also seem to believe that, if they can leave office without a paper trail, future historians will have no choice to but to repeat their press conferences. The Gospel According to Tony Snow.

To that end, the Administration has deleted their email records, even going so far as to eliminate the automatic archiving system and erase the routine data backups that should have documented White House activities. Which all seems suspiciously consistent with the mysterious destruction of the CIA’s waterboarding video. Or the use of secret, non-governmental email accounts for government business. Or concealing who visited the White House and who took part in important policy discussions.

Okay, I can go on and on about this Administration’s corruption. And the fact that this obsessive desire to conceal information fits hand in glove with their obsession with acquiring information will receive future comment. But the question I want to raise right now is – will it work? That they will never be held accountable for their actions, in any legal sense of the term, is a foregone conclusion. There’ll be no impeachment and the lesson of the Nixon resignation is that Americans can’t bring themselves to toss an ex-president in jail. Bush and Cheney will walk. But do they have any chance to win history’s verdict?

Obviously, they don’t believe the truth will ever be on their side, or they might be less afraid to preserve it. So they refuse to testify at all. And I suspect this will play out, in the future, exactly like invoking the 5th Amendment does in a criminal case: you don’t pay legal penalties, but everyone walks away knowing that you’re guilty. And what will they have to defend themselves with? You don’t write history based on press releases; you go for the primary documents. Would-be Bush defenders won’t have much to work with and what they do have will have the odor of cherry-picking about them. Against that, we already have inside accounts from Richard Clark and Paul O’Neill. More will surely come, with varying degrees of authority and credibility. Even if there’s some chance that the truth would save Bush’s reputation, the evidence just won’t be there. In destroying the chance to be found guilty, he’s sacrificed his only chance to be exonerated, because "History: will be forced to listen to his enemies.

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