Tom Hanks excels at illuminating our nation’s history, from John Adams to Band of Brothers, Saving Private Ryan, Bridge of Spies, Apollo 13, and Charlie Wilson’s War. Much of the impact springs from Hanks’ reverence for the primary source materials – the underlying records – that ground these compelling stories in the integrity of historical truth. So it was no surprise last month when the National Archives Foundation honored Hanks with The Records of Achievement Award, an annual tribute to an individual “whose work has cultivated a broader national awareness of the history and identity of the United States through the use of original records.”
Fidelity to the facts, as documented in public records, is neither a quaint notion nor a mere gimmick to sell movie tickets or HBO subscriptions. The integrity of our public institutions’ recordkeeping is an essential pillar of our democracy. And it’s in peril.
These are emotional, antagonistic times in our national politics. Looking back over the decades, this may be unpleasant, yet it’s happened before. What is new, however, is a full frontal assault on the facts themselves. It’s one thing to urge “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain”, a tactic as tried and true in politics as it was for the Wizard of Oz. It is quite another to vehemently deny that the man behind the curtain is there at all, or to obscure or destroy records of his existence.
When a Secretary of State conducts public business on a private email server, public records may be lost, along with the public’s trust (“who knows what was in all those deleted emails?”). Whether you supported that presidential candidate or not, the fact is that the integrity of public recordkeeping was damaged.
And when our President and his administration are actively hostile to the facts, instead generating “alternative facts” and decrying all negative accounts as “fake news,” the integrity of the underlying facts, as documented in records, is under attack. Whether you support the President or not, as the demonstrable falsehoods pile up, the very concept of factual integrity is damaged.
Public sentiment will wax and wane, but public recordkeeping helps ensure that the truth can emerge, sooner or later. That is, unless the public records are purposefully not kept, or are made difficult to access, or have their credibility undermined such that their integrity is fatally damaged.
Cases in point?
- Reports have emerged of Trump administration members using private email accounts, and of staffers using encrypted messaging apps, such as Confide.
- White House visitor logs are no longer being published, and, in pending FOIA litigation, the Secret Service recently confirmed by affidavit (at paragraph 11) that there is “no grouping, listing, or set of records that would reflect Presidential visitors to Mar-a-Lago.”
- In April the EPA took down the Climate Change link under its website’s main page Environmental Topics, and removed climate change data from the website, including a review of basic climate science and documentation of the effects of climate change. And now that the EPA has begun publishing updated content, references to climate change data and response strategies have been scrubbed.
By the way, EPA characterizes its actions as merely an update and revision of website content. As noted by Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University, “[i]t’s hard to understand why facts require revision.”
Daniel Patrick Moynihan observed that “[e]veryone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” So, bring on the spirited arguments over policies and positions, and let the best of them win – that’s what has made America great. But when the facts themselves are collateral damage – or the intended target – our democratic system breaks down. Trust fades, suspicion and fear grow, and we find ourselves, frankly, where we seem to be headed right now.
The integrity and availability of our public records is essential to our nation – indeed, in the words of the National Archives Foundation, to our history and our identity as Americans. To squander this for short-term political gain is foolish.