Richard Reeves knows a lot about presidents — more than they want him to know.
Reeves, the author of “President Kennedy: Profile of Power and President Nixon: Alone in the White House,” spoke to a large audience Wednesday at the Law School on “Secrecy in the White House.”
Reeves discussed the implications of last year’s executive order by President George W. Bush, which allows current and former presidents to restrict public access to the papers of former presidents.
Under the Public Records Act of 1978, former President Ronald Reagan’s papers were scheduled to be released Jan. 21, 2001 — 12 years after he left office — but Bush’s order halted their release.
The papers shipped to Reagan’s presidential library at Simi Valley, Calif., are now all being shipped back to the White House for review.
Reeves said the executive order severely limits the material available to historians and other researchers.
“There are 55 million pages in the Reagan papers, and seven million are open,” he said.
But he added that, even when papers are restricted from public view, he is still able to acquire much of the information. Reeves said he does this by talking to people who worked in an administration or by accessing court records of criminal investigations like the one into the Nixon administration.
“The papers that are sanitized by the White House are often times open in the courthouse,” Reeves said.
Calling the invention of the photocopier “the greatest single advance in the study of the presidency,” he said that multiple copies of restricted papers often remain available from the people who worked with the president.
White House officials have said the executive order is a matter of national security. Reeves speculated that Bush may have wanted to keep secret sensitive information concerning U.S. actions against terrorism. He also said Bush may want to protect the legacy of his father George H.W. Bush, former president and Reagan’s vice president.
Reeves did acknowledge that some presidential secrecy can serve a good purpose.
He said the president needs some secrecy because if a leak of highly-sensitive papers occurs, the president will hold smaller meetings, consult with fewer advisors, and release even less information to the public — a situation Reeves said would be bad for presidents and historians alike.
Reeves began his talk by discussing his interest in the lives of presidents, while offering insight into the craft of presidential biography.
“I wondered how the world looked to presidents,” he said. “I wanted to write a book about what it was like to be president.”
He added that his purpose in biography is to “write history with what the president knew and when he knew it.”
Strobe Talbott, the director of the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, said he enjoyed the talk.
“It was a chance for all of us to see one of the great reporters of our times,” he said. “He had a lot to inform lawyers and historians about.”
Talbott, who said he has known Reeves for nearly thirty years, also praised Reeves’s writing.
“He has almost invented a unique genre — of the second draft of history,” he said.