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A Record Document Dump

The National Archives in Washington, Wednesday, March 19, 2008, where the Archives released more than 11,000 pages from Hillary Rodham Clinton's schedule as first lady. (AP.)

By Peter Baker
The release of more than 11,000 pages of Hillary Rodham Clinton's schedules from her time as first lady has a certain déjà vu quality to it, reminiscent of the many "document dumps," as officials and reporters called them, through the 1990s. The first fight typically is over whether or when the documents should be released. The second fight is over how to interpret them once they are.

To be sure, the calendars from 2,888 of her days in the White House are fairly antiseptic, certainly more so than the campaign finance documents or the Starr report that were eventually made public during the Clinton presidency. But they give further guideposts as political operatives, activists and journalists try to define what Hillary Clinton's time as first lady meant in terms of her own potential presidency.

The Clinton campaign this morning tried to shape the way the papers will be read, issuing a "Myths and Facts" guide to rebut contrary assessments of the documents. For instance, the Clinton statement rebuts Sen. Barack Obama's camp on the question of the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA. The Obama folks have pointed to her attendance at meetings intended to sell the trade pact to Congress as undercutting her current criticism of the agreement. The Clinton camp responded by saying: "It is no secret that passing NAFTA was a priority of the Clinton administration, but numerous contemporary accounts make clear that Hillary Clinton was personally opposed to NAFTA, and her position on NAFTA was and remains consistent."

The Clinton campaign also fired back at those who read the records and noted that they showed an extremely packed substantive schedule in the early part of the administration as she tried to craft and pass a major health care reform package, then evolved into more traditional first lady events later in the presidency. (Not to be paranoid, but we think she means us with that one; see "In Hillary Clinton's Datebook, A Shift.") "The schedules show no such thing," the Clinton campaign statement said. "They demonstrate that Hillary remained an active participant and contributor to the work of the Clinton administration in addition to fulfilling her ceremonial duties as first lady."

The problem with the schedules is that they give clues and hints but are hardly definitive. Her itineraries in the later years did focus more heavily on school and hospital visits and the like, showing fewer meetings with senators and policy development sessions. But there's no question she played an active role in carefully chosen issues such as adoption, Gulf War syndrome and health care. And the schedules do not give any indication of who she called on the telephone, what spontaneous conversations she may have had in the West Wing during the course of a day, what positions she conveyed through her chief of staff who attended the president's senior staff meetings or certainly what she told her husband in the privacy of their living quarters. The schedules do not show her attending many National Security Council meetings, but she had other ways to make her voice heard if she chose to. Part of what she learned from health care was to control her profile and keep her fingerprints off many issues.

What the schedules do show are broad patterns. She often boasts of visiting 82 countries while first lady, and it is true she traveled places where presidential spouses almost never went before. The itineraries remind those of us who were there that she spent little time with heads of state on these trips and did not negotiate treaties or push major policy agendas. Instead, she visited villages or clinics, held roundtables with community or business leaders and gave speeches promoting women's rights or other priorities. She traveled to the Davos conference on her own and talked with the world's economic titans, but at summits she attended with her husband, she was often relegated to the "spousal bus" and teas with other first ladies. So she was not exactly the secretary of state solving crises every day, but, on the other hand, she gained extensive exposure to issues and people in every corner of the world in a way that a state senator, say, typically does not.

The other problem with the schedules is that rather than solving the mysteries of Hillary Clinton's time in office, they tend to raise more. What were all these "Private Meetings" that she had with people whose names were blanked out by federal archivists on privacy grounds? On Dec 1, 2000, for instance, the schedules list seven such private meetings between 9 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. with no further information about them. And what was she really doing during some of the most dramatic days of the Clinton presidency when her schedule has her sticking to receptions and speeches and drop-by meetings? Her various interviews under oath by prosecutors never show up, nor do the major events of the impeachment battle.

In fact, to read the schedules cold, without having lived through the Clinton presidency, you would never have any sense that the Travel Office firings, the mishandling of FBI files, the Whitewater investigation, the Monica Lewinsky scandal and impeachment ever took place. Likewise, a crude search of the documents turned up no mentions of Johnny Chung, John Huang or other Democratic fundraisers who would later stir such controversy and multiple investigations. And yet we know from contemporaneous accounts that she was heavily involved in forming strategy through many of those political battles.

In the end, the schedules provide a starting point but hardly the definitive account of her time as first lady. The William J. Clinton Presidential Library and the National Archives and Records Administration released the documents in response to six requests filed under the Freedom of Information Act by Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog group that also sued; its former head, Larry Klayman, who now has a new organization; journalists Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta, veterans of the New York Times and authors of a book on Hillary Clinton called "Her Way"; Frances Craft, filing as an individual; Jim Popkin of NBC News; and Fred Lucas of CNSNews, a branch of the Media Research Center, a conservative media watchdog group.

More FOI requests are pending for her telephone logs and other such documents. But the archivists move at, let's say, a deliberate pace as they review requested records line-by-line, making it unclear how many more papers will be released while Clinton is campaigning for the president. An incomplete picture may be the only one to come out of the documentary record before the final votes are cast.

By Web Politics Editor  |  March 20, 2008; 1:01 PM ET
Categories:  Hillary Rodham Clinton , Morning Cheat Sheet  
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