Slick Willy Protecting His Records?

May 11, 1995

President Clinton has nominated John W. Carlin to head the National Archives. The post has been vacant for the entire Clinton presidency. Disgraceful as that is, this choice is worse. What are Mr. Carlin's credentials? He is not a librarian. He is not a historian. He is not a records manager. He is not a curator. He has no academic expertise.

Mr. Carlin has a degree in dairy science from Kansas State. His career was as a dairy farmer and cattle salesman -- and as a state legislator and governor. The 1984 law creating a presidentially appointed, Senate-confirmed archivist is explicit that he or she "shall be appointed without regard to political affiliation and solely on the basis of professional qualifications required to perform the duties and responsibilities of the office of Archivist."

Not only does Mr. Carlin lack such credentials, he possesses a credential that clearly disqualifies him when you read the legislative history of the act. He helped Mr. Clinton get elected president. He is a "friend of Bill." Then-Maryland-Sen. Charles McC. Mathias, floor manager of the 1984 bill, told colleagues that it was "intended that [the archivist] be . . . insulated from the political orientation and pressure of a particular administration."

One reason Congress acted in 1984 was that the archivist's office, then a unit of the General Services Administration, had fallen into ill repute. Richard Nixon got the GSA to agree to give him his infamous White House tapes. Congress stopped that in the 1970s, and, after a long struggle, Senator Mathias won independence and professionalism for the National Archives.

What does an archivist do? Determines which records are kept and which are not, which are ready to be made public and which are not. An archivist with a debt to a president might decide to allow an ex-president to destroy important documents or tapes. George Bush is challenging a court ruling denying him the right to dispose of his papers as he sees fit. Last month the Clinton administration joined Mr. Bush in appealing the ruling.

When President Clinton let it be known he might bypass professional candidates to name Mr. Carlin, a historian warned White House aides "it will look like Slick Wilie trying to protect his records." That may not be the case at all, but it will be interpreted that way by many.

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