In his office in the new Archives II building adjacent to the University of Maryland campus in College Park, the Archivist of the United States ponders his job and finds his agency somewhat astonishingly on the cutting edge of the news.
"Look at the news stories of today. It's just incredible," marvels John W. Carlin, the energetic Kansan who has been keeper of the nation's records for just about a year and a half. "Coming to work, the lead stories on NPR all [were] linked to records and issues we deal with.
"It happened that [Sen. Alphonse W.] D'Amato was having a hearing, so Swiss gold was a big story," he says. "The Pentagon flap over the eight pages that are missing in terms of looking at Desert Storm. We are right in there in a very significant and dramatic way."
Newly released tapes from Richard M. Nixon's presidency have provided headlines for weeks. About 278 hours of Nixon tapes have now been released, another 4,000 remain in the archives like the submerged mass of an iceberg, awaiting some titanic future release.
Even the Electoral College vote for Bill Clinton's re-election made news for what is officially called the National Archives and Records Administration. The Archives provides what are titled with ancient elegance "Certificates of Ascertainment" for the Electors, then certifies their vote and will deliver it to Congress on Jan. 6.
All this is pretty heady stuff for an agency sometimes thought of as a directorate of federal gnomes endlessly shuffling the musty files of an endlessly rising mountain of records.
But John Carlin has learned to love his job.
"It's just a great place and a great challenge," Carlin says, cheerfully. "I've been very, very lucky."
A good job
President Clinton named Carlin the eighth National Archivist in June 1995.
"I've had wonderful opportunities and a variety of challenges," he says. "But this is easily the best position I've ever had."
That includes, among other things, serving as governor of Kansas from 1979 to 1987.
Carlin is a tall, fairly trim, 56-year-old Democrat who chaired President Clinton's 1992 campaign in Kansas. He's personable and persuasive in conversation, with an easy sense of humor. He's got nice, open Middle-American good looks and a steady, straightforward gaze when he talks to you.
While he had his partisans, Carlin's appointment was pretty much panned by archivists, historians and editorialists as sheer politics. Critics routinely dubbed him a dairy farmer from Kansas. Which, in fact, he has been. And his sole degree, aside from an honorary doctorate, is a bachelor's in agriculture from Kansas State University.
But, he says, smiling: "I didn't milk the cows this morning." He hasn't been a dairy farmer since 1978 when he became governor. "I never went back to the farm," he says.
He was, in fact, vice chairman of a semiconductor company when Clinton appointed him archivist. But his only brush with the professional qualifications of the job were service on the boards of the Archives Foundation and of the Kansas State Historical Society.
He nonetheless walked right in and took charge, with no apparent hesitation, reluctance, shyness or lack of confidence, of an agency he says was in crisis.
John Carlin likes to say the Archives needed a leader, not another archivist. And archivists seem to have come around to recognizing his leadership qualities. His "strategic plan" for the Archives' next decade elicited approval when he unfolded it in a speech before the Society of American Archivists.
Sue Fox, the executive director of the society, has commended his plan and his progress so far.
He told the archivists that escalating record volumes, increasing user demands, spiraling space costs and tightening federal budgets "threaten the very existence of the agency." But he vowed to prevent the Archives from becoming a mere museum of paper, an irrelevant warehouse of old government records.
If the Smithsonian is the nation's attic, the National Archives is its filing cabinet.
It is guardian and protector, for instance, of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
All are sealed in helium-filled bronze cases and enshrined in a kind of "Ark of the Covenants of Democracy" in the half-domed rotunda of the agency's great classical John Russell Pope building halfway between the White House and the Capitol.
Alongside such formidable icons of the republic, in the rotunda's Circular Gallery, there is also evidence of the quirkiness of the nation's archival stash: an exhibition of gifts to 12 modern presidents, including a Democratic donkey quilt sewn for Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1936 and a right-to-bear-arms pocket knife given to Ronald Reagan.