Leading the National Archives?
The National Archives needs leadership. Some people don't want that.
I’m Paul Musgrave, a political scientist and writer. This is Systematic Hatreds, my newsletter about my thoughts regarding politics and the study of politics. The newsletter takes its title from a line in The Education of Henry Adams:
Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, had always been the systematic organization of hatreds.
This week, we’re talking about Colleen Shogan, nominee to be the next Archivist of the United States.
Leading the National Archives?
Back in July, I laid out some of the broad issues facing the National Archives and Records Administration, and why the country needs a strong, nonpartisan Archivist of the United States. This morning at 10 a.m. Eastern, the Homeland Security and Government Affairs committee of the U.S. Senate will hold hearings on the nomination of Colleen Shogan to fill the role of Archivist of the United States. You should care about this.
Recent events have made NARA’s traditional goal of nonpartisanship harder to achieve. The agency is at the center of efforts to recover presidential records and classified materials apparently taken by former president Donald Trump without authorization. NARA’s sensible, nonpartisan efforts to recover the materials have, almost inevitably, made it the center of a partisan conflict. Trump, newly interested in the topic of the National Archives, wrote a few days ago on his social media site Truth about “the Radical Left controlled NARA” :
For those of us with a memory of more than a few days, this is deeply ironic. Several years ago, the National Archives doctored photos of the Women’s March protesting Trump to obscure slogans like “God Hates Trump”. The agency later apologized, but what matters is that this showed the worst part of the agency’s tendency to shade history’s public presentation in order to avoid controversy. Rather like its treatment of presidential libraries, in which presidents’ retainers and families exercise substantial influence in how attached museums operate, a not-infrequent NARA instinct is to interpret nonpartisanship to a fault.
That tendency has many fathers: NARA is a small agency whose most vocal supportive constituency was traditionally geneaological researchers (really! sorry, academics, nobody cares what you think!) and many of its politically appointed heads since its independence in the mid-1980s have been, well, hacks. (Interim agency heads from the ranks of its career civil servants have tended to be better.) NARA also knows which way the wind blows, and since the Enola Gay exhibit controversy at the Smithsonian decades ago federal and quasi-federal institutions have more or less acted like there’s a silent majority veto on their presentation of the past. Finally, the agency, like all others, does have work to do—those records won’t administer themselves—and public-facing work is not part of its core identity as a records preservation agency. From the inside, shading or trimming presentation of public-facing work doesn’t seem like a violation of its mission in the same way that, say, having records ripped to shreds and flushed down the toilet are. Even that sense of mission, however, has its limits.
For all that National Treasure and the Archives’ public presence emphasize the semi-historic 1930s building on Pennsylvania Avenue as the agency’s public face, the true National Archives headquarters is in College Park, Maryland. It’s a nice enough but federal-bland building (named, incidentally, for Steny Hoyer) that was built in the 1990s after the volume of federal records swelled. Architecture reflects mission, even unintentionally. Even though its massive windows invite contemplations of openness, this is not a building whose architecture celebrates democracy or permanence, like the Pennsylvania Avenue building. It’s nice, but nonthreatening, and certainly not inspiring.
When you’re under attack, however, being nice is not enough. Trump’s messaging telegraphs the punches that Shogan will face in her hearings this morning. The right-wing of the Republican Party is out to discredit the agency and nonpartisanship itself.
In a 50-50 Senate, the committee is similarly evenly divided. Members of the committee include Ron Johnson, Rand Paul, James Lankford, Rick Scott, and Josh Hawley. A hung vote is not out of the question. The wildcards are how Mitt Romney and Kyrsten Sinema will vote. Both, or neither, could decide to support Shogan. The question is what case will persuade them.
Shogan is an academic political scientist and DC executive. As an expert in the American presidency, one hopes that she fully understands the importance of federal records and why archives work matters. As an involved nonprofit board member and leader (including vice chair of the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission), she understands the promise—and the boundaries—of nonpartisan public history. As a former APSA Congressional Fellow (who worked for a year on Capitol Hill as an embedded staffer) and Library of Congress deputy director of national and international outreach, she also knows the Hill.
DC needs few bulls in the china shop. Yet it also needs champions for public integrity. It also needs a leader who can restore (or maybe just create) NARA morale and be a steward of the nation’s records. Putting forward that case to public servants like Romney is likely the best case for Shogan to try to win bipartisan support in committee and on the floor. As a murder-mystery novelist (including being the author of Stabbing in the Senate), Shogan likely has all the skills she needs to tell that story.
The question is whether it will be enough. Floor time is scarce, and kicking up a fuss about this nomination could be one way for Trump and allies to make the NARA records story about the agency, not his feckless (if not felonious) record. One path I doubt will be taken is trimming back too much on support for the current NARA leadership’s path regarding records. Yet senators have, in the past, used nominations as times to exert influence over the National Archives and politically sensitive subjects. This could get bad.
If Shogan survives confirmation, of course, she will then have to lead the agency. Taking a strong stand now about the terms under which she would lead will make that task easier.
The depressing thing is that even within a very narrowly professionalized kind of nonpartisanship, NARA could do a lot more with College Park and the Presidential libraries to be friendly to research users and the transition out of pandemic precautions is a good time to be thinking about that. I haven't worked at College Park for a while, so maybe things have changed, but on the whole it is a much harder environment to do basic discovery work than the UK National Archives in Kew. But there's no hope for doing that kind of thinking while the agency is under assault simply for being a repository of documents in the first place by people who have now comprehensively rejected the idea that democracy requires some form of access to information about government actions and decision-making (which is just a corollary of their wider rejection of democracy itself).