ATLANTA -- Does George W. Bush have something to hide? An awkward question, unpleasant to ask at any time and especially in these warlike circumstances, but inevitable after Mr. Bush signed an executive order Nov. 1 putting the lid on presidential papers that had been scheduled to become public.
The wonder is that the question isn't being asked more broadly and urgently than it has been so far.
The order sabotages the intent of the 1978 Presidential Records Act, which made the papers of subsequent presidents public 12 years after a president leaves office.
Ronald Reagan's presidency was the first to fall under the act, and the White House says Mr. Bush's order was prompted in part by a request for some 68,000 pages of Reagan records.
Covering also the records of former vice presidents, the order authorizes the incumbent president or the former president -- or his family, in some instances, if the former president has died -- to withhold documents from researchers, scholars, journalists and others.
The papers can be iced by the sitting president even if a former president wants them released, or by a former president even if the sitting president would release them. A former president could, for instance, be denied the validation or vindication his papers would provide by a politically antagonistic successor. White Houses could effectively redact whole previous presidencies.
Presumably, withholdings under this order, and perhaps the order itself, can be challenged in court, but that process would take years.
This is an assault on history, on the public's understanding of its government and on the principle of accountability. And why? No cited abuse of the system was proclaimed as provoking the order, and with his handlers sharply limiting open-forum press conferences, the chances for asking Mr. Bush are scant.
The device allows George W. Bush, if he wishes, to throw a blanket over the vice presidency and presidency of his father, an act of archival nepotism of which the very best that can be said is that it is unseemly. At worse, suspicions flourish.
Could this be still more stonewalling of the Iran-contra affair, the shady business that found the Reagan administration running a secretly, often privately funded foreign policy that, if it wasn't unconstitutional, was certainly extra-constitutional? The role of Bush the First in that murky matter has never been clear.
Are there members of the administration of Bush fils, brought back from Bush pere, whose current roles could be compromised if their past roles were closely examined?
Is this president, commanding an anti-terror campaign whose means may become, let's say, infastidious, cutting himself some dubious tactical slack by ensuring that he or his family can keep his actions secret even long after he has left office?
This quirky decision almost forces such questions, however unwelcome they may be. So far, the answer to only one question is clear: Just whom will the order hide information from?
Tom Teepen is a columnist for Cox Newspapers based in Atlanta. His e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org.