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Harry Truman
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Washington scandals daunting documenters of history

Web posted on: Monday, August 10, 1998 6:00:44 PM

From Correspondent Jill Brooke

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Thomas Jefferson liked to greet diplomats in his bedroom slippers.

Harry Truman wanted to hang his labor secretary.

And Abe Lincoln asked for Civil War flags as a souvenir for his son.

These telling details were documented by witnesses to history. But with private diaries and tapes now subject to subpoenas, many in politics are no longer documenting their remembrances, fearing their records of a life in public office may wind up bringing them before a grand jury.

Biographers say history is going to suffer because of those fears.

"You're not going to have people sitting around writing long, deep-thinking diary entries, as Lincoln's secretaries did, about what it was like to sit with the president," said historian Ken Davis, the author of "Don't Know Much About History."

"Will there be documents? Sure. Will they be as compelling? Maybe not, if Big Brother is looking over their shoulder."

Diaries can go public

These days, private diaries can be made public, as evidenced by the cases of former Treasury Chief of Staff Joshua Steiner, whose diaries became evidence during the Whitewater investigation; and Oregon Sen. Bob Packwood, who was accused first of sexual misconduct with 17 women, then of altering his diaries to obstruct an investigation into alleged official and sexual misconduct. Packwood resigned. The Justice Department eventually decided not to prosecute him on the diary-altering charges.

Historians lost another research tool after the Watergate tapes were used against former President Richard Nixon.

"Almost every president since (Franklin Delano Roosevelt) has taped his conversations," said Nixon historian Monica Crowley. "But after what happened to Richard Nixon on Watergate, no American president is ever going to allow himself to be taped.

"It will have a chilling effect," Crowley continued, "because we don't have that kind of accurate record of presidential conversations and how they reached their decisions."

Sure, you can have remembrances sealed, as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis did with an interview which won't be made public until 2067. But some wonder if anyone could successfully seal interviews today.

'Some prosecutor could subpoena them'

"Even if they're guaranteed it's sealed for 20 years, the fact that they're there, some prosecutor could subpoena them and embarrass them," said Michael Cascio, who is the executive producer of A&E's "Biography" and the network's senior vice president of programming.

Now, Cascio says, historians will have to get their information from second-hand sources -- "people who worked around them, assistants, the water boys, the script people, typists or the personal servants."

Of course, historians can still assemble material for biographies, TV shows and movies despite these obstacles. "They'll have new tools; people are recording things differently and it's caught on home video camera," said Abbe Raven, the senior vice president of programming for the History Channel.

But many historians say their job will be more difficult -- and the days of finding revealing letters and diaries may be history.

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