The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library opened an initial batch of more than 6 million pages of White House documents on Tuesday, but scholars looking for bombshells about the Iran-Contra scandal or other titillating revelations about the Reagan era probably will have to wait until the 21st Century.
“Unless it is fairly routine, it will remain closed for some time,” said Rod Soubers, supervisory archivist at the library, near Simi Valley, which opened to the public last week. “The more substantive material . . . is not presently available.”
Yet mixed with the arcane and mundane are some fascinating tidbits, including a letter from Reagan to the wife of an archconservative newspaper publisher bemoaning the unstoppable power of big government.
“As you can see, ‘big brother’ is watching and he ain’t us,” Reagan, then at the pinnacle of his power, wrote in his own hand. The 1985 letter, focusing on a shared disdain for compulsory seat-belt laws, was addressed to Nackey Loeb, wife of the late Manchester, N.H., Union Leader Publisher William Loeb.
Some correspondence was directed to members of Reagan’s staff.
In 1983, California Court of Appeal Justice Robert K. Puglia asked then-presidential counselor Edwin Meese III “to put in a good word” that might help his elevation to the state Supreme Court.
In the letter, Puglia applauded the Reagan Administration’s successes and took a gratuitous swipe at former House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neill Jr. (D-Mass). “If you could just do something to keep Tip O’Neill’s blowsy, bibulous kisser off TV, it would improve the quality of life out here in the hinterlands.”
Puglia, still on the appeals court, never made it to the state’s highest court.
The Reagan library stores 47 million pages of presidential papers in its basement--the largest collection of White House documents ever assembled. Within a few years, the number is expected to swell to more than 55 million.
The papers unveiled Tuesday--hailed by library officials as the largest initial opening of any presidential library--represent mostly letters from citizens and staff memos on topics ranging from highway safety to the quickly aborted classification of ketchup as a vegetable on school-lunch programs.
Reagan’s papers are the first to fall under the Presidential Records Act of 1978, a law that some scholars criticize as more concerned about presidential privacy than public interest. The law makes White House documents public property, but encumbers their release with a variety of restrictions to protect privacy, national defense, foreign policy and confidential advice.
Of the newly released portion, 1.5 million pages cover 10 topics from the White House subject files, including agriculture, education, highways and bridges, recreation and sports, and natural resources.
Most memos between the President and his top aides were yanked from these files under a restriction protecting confidential advice. They will be available in another decade.
The largest batch of documents classified as “open"--an estimated 4.8 million pages--consist of an alphabetized file of unsolicited letters and White House responses. But before the public can view any of this correspondence, each request is subject to a 30-day review by the Bush Administration, under the Presidential Records Act.
Nearly all the documents released Tuesday were answered by Reagan’s staff, apparently without ever reaching the Oval Office.
A year before he ran for President, then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, a Democrat, wrote Reagan to urge him to maintain the 55 m.p.h. national speed limit. A special presidential assistant answered Dukakis, thanking him for his comments and assuring him that they would be forwarded “to appropriate Administration officials.”
But an accompanying work sheet that tracks correspondence indicates that the letter was not referred anywhere.
The subject file also contained memos between Reagan’s associates. In 1985, White House political director Ed Rollins sent several of his colleagues a memo summarizing a political “white paper” written by Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica).
“Tom Hayden has gone a long way from member of the Chicago Seven to member of the California State Senate,” Rollins wrote. “Hayden’s strategic thoughts are fascinating (the tactical ones less so).”
National Archives staff, who run the Reagan library, plan to continue to release papers from the 50 other categories in the White House subject files in six-month intervals and then move on to the files of individual staff members.
But for now the documents available to the public have little or nothing to do with the main issues of the Reagan presidency: cutting federal spending on many domestic programs, restructuring the tax system; the defense buildup or launching the concept of a space-based missile-defense system, known as Star Wars. Instead, the papers offer details on the annual Easter Egg Roll on the White House lawn and the Reagan Scholars program at Eureka College, Reagan’s alma mater in Illinois.
Most American historians do not expect the library to be of much research value until after the turn of the century. Archivists said that only five scholars have scheduled appointments to review documents in the next two months.