Politicians shouldn't keep diaries -- They only cause trouble

Thomas V. DiBacco

November 02, 1993|By Thomas V. DiBacco

AN IRONY of the ethics investigation of Sen. Bob Packwood is that the Oregon Republican kept a diary.

Indeed, in the last half-century, Americans have forsaken diary-writing and even letter-writing. Although postal statistics are organized by the class of mail, estimates are that more than three-fourths of all mail today is business-to-business or business-to-household (mostly bills and circulars). Only a small portion is personal letters.

The diary, which is difficult to find these days at general or specialty stores, used to be a significant source for historians.

Early Americans kept diaries, believing they would be of interest to heirs and historians (and that they helped improve writing, since many did not have formal schooling).

Note, for example, the diary of Philip Vickers Fithian, a college student in 1770:

"We sup at seven. At nine the Bell rings for Study; and a Tutor goes through College, to see that every Student is in his own Room; if he finds that any are absent, or more in any Room than belongs there, he notes them down, & the day following calls them to an Account. After nine any may go to bed, but to go before is reproachful. . . I am, through divine goodness, very well & more reconciled to rising in the Morning so early than at first. . . "

Of course, some colonial diary-writing was induced by the belief that what was happening in the New World was historic from a religious point of view. Gov. William Bradford's account of Plymouth colony is a case in point -- and, like many diaries, it was passed on and eventually stored in a church.

But then came the American Revolution, and the work disappeared, turning up a half-century later in England in published form as "History of the Plymouth Plantation." It was finally returned to the United States in 1897.

Southern diary writers were often more explicit than their reserved New England counterparts, furnishing the historian with much more intimate view of their lives.

William Byrd II of colonial Virginia, for example, recorded such instances as walking hand-in-hand with his wife on their plantation, playing cards and billiards together (at which he often admitted cheating), having numerous domestic arguments (all attributed to his wife's being out of sorts during menses) and sometimes crying together as a result of serious disagreements.

Byrd recorded sexual escapades with household maids and women picked up in the parks of London. His diary also detailed his asking God's forgiveness for his misdeeds -- and his attempts to invent contraptions -- a "leaden girdle," for instance -- to keep him from straying again. Byrd also noted that a diet of "sour lemons and an abundance of lettuce" would "cool . . . concupiscence."

Not surprisingly, Byrd has been controversial among historians. So have other meticulous diary writers. The Adams family, led by John and John Quincy, are good illustrations. The more honest and detailed they were in their entries, the more likely they provided fodder for the critical historian. John Quincy, for instance, once recorded his contention that the Constitution was a menstrual "rag" because it did not support his civil rights views.

Little wonder that public figures in this century, as scrutiny from the media and historians increased, weren't disposed to keep diaries. Or they made them as bland as possible, as Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower demonstrated. Richard Nixon used the technical diary -- the recording of his telephone conversations -- an act that contributed to his resignation from the presidency.

Thomas Jefferson saw the dangers of public figures being too TTC honest about their lives. His writings are replete with phrases that are ambiguous, leading the third president to be praised at one time or another by both nationalists and advocates of states' rights.

Perhaps that's the reason that Jefferson wrote that "he is happiest of whom the world says least, good or bad."

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at American University in Washington.

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