Thursday, May 06, 2004



You may not have heard this story. The Bush Administration routinely wallows in its own mediocrity and arrogance and stupidity, and some weeks, only the most egregious and vilest of its atrocities get a lot of play in the news.

The Bush Administration has named a new archivist of the United States. It is a low profile job but it is a very important one. The archivist of the United States preserves the papers of the government, presidential papers, transcripts of hearings and things like that. The papers are then, in theory, available to scholars and the public to inspect and evaluate the performance of the government.

The Bush Administration has chosen Allen Weinstein, a Cold War scholar with questionable historical methods, to be archivist starting next year, just in time for the release of records of the presidency of the first George Bush.

For a 1999 book titled "The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America - The Stalin Era," Weinstein enjoyed exclusive access to documents said to come from KGB archives. Weinstein never actually saw the documents because he doesn't read Russian, so his co-author is the only one in America who ever had a chance to see the documents before they were hidden away by the Russian government.

Which means no one has been able to check the original documents to evaluate Weinstein's facts or interpretations. This creates an ethical problem for historians (if not for the Bush Administration, which never seems to have ethical problems) because other historians are prevented from checking the accuracy of the work.

Weinstein's other work, "Perjury," a book sometimes cited as proof that Alger Hiss was guilty of espionage, also has a few problems because Weinstein withheld some of his research from scholars, violating the standards of the American Historical Association. In addition, six of Weinstein's main sources said he or she had been misquoted or misrepresented in "Perjury." Weinsten said he would provide the tapes of the interviews to the Truman Library so scholars could scrutinize his work. A quarter of a century later, the tapes are still not at the Truman Library.

(I've read "Perjury" and I had a few problems with it, even if it might look impressive to the layman. Weinstein completely ignores some of the issues introduced in John Chabot Smith's "The Strange Case of Alger Hiss." And a later book, titled "A Tissue of Lies," does a pretty good job of trashing many of the conclusions in "Perjury." The tangled history of the historiography of the Hiss case is far too complicated to get into here but it is clear that "Perjury" had far too many problems to be held up as proof that Alger Hiss was guilty.)

So this is the best the Bush Administration could do in choosing an archivist? The subtleties of historical ethics may be kind of trivial to most Americans, but would it have been that difficult to find someone whose work and methods have not generated questions about ethics? Is this Bush Administration so dedicated to insulting the American people that it once again tries to foist off someone like this on the American people, as if it was too much trouble to find an honest historian? Or was it more important to find a safe conservative historian who would control the archives from the scrutiny of "liberal" historians - historians who might be critical of the current president's father?

At least he doesn't have a criminal record, like so many other Bush appointees - and Bush himself.


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