PRESIDENT BUSH says we are fighting terrorism to preserve our way of life -- not the least element of which is our democratic government. Trust in the laws made by our representatives prevents erosion of individual rights and domestic peace.
Thus we are troubled by an executive order that could keep records of the Reagan-Bush administration out of the public domain. Those papers should be available for public inspection under a 1978 law sealing them for 12 years then making them available.
Absent adherence to this law, voters and historians will be denied invaluable perspective on the performance of past leaders. This is simply wrong. A democracy needs openness to maintain trust. Without trust, we would be far less likely to follow our leaders in times of stress. President Bush and his administration must see the importance of that principle.
Yet the White House asks us to accept its assurances that these papers will be available in due time. To suggest that people who don't like it can always go to court is high-handed.
The order invites considerable suspicion. Is Mr. Bush protecting his father, former President George H.W. Bush, who was vice president during the Reagan administration's Iran-contra misadventure? Are there embarrassing bits of information about the senior Bush's role in that secret undertaking?
Or does the current President Bush wish to protect himself in advance knowing that his own records will be made public in 12 years? Are there actions taken in the prosecution of this war on terrorism that he hopes to conceal?
Is he using the public's anxiety about foreign threats to protect himself, his father and President Reagan?
The order drew condemnation from many quarters, including conservative ones. This is so because it could protect administrations intent on covering up such disasters as the Branch Davidian fire in Waco or the shootings at Ruby Ridge. Terrorists like Timothy McVeigh used those episodes to justify free-lance murders no less craven than the attack on the World Trade Center.
Because it allows history to be shaped -- or erased -- by self-interest, we agree with Vanderbilt University historian Hugh Graham, who called the order a "real monster."
The American people will cut their president considerable slack now-- but they will not understand if he puts himself above laws he swore to uphold.