Russell L. Riley, “The White House as a Black Box”

Riley begins this article by noting that “the intricacies of White House behavior have always been kept largely out of public view” (188).  He notes that “in this environment, oral history interviews are an especially valuable resource.1 Indeed, presidential oral history is a useful antidote for each of the two major problems now confronting students of the White House: it can serve to fill in substantive gaps in an increasingly sporadic executive paper trail, and it provides to a broad community of scholars new data they can use to refine their thinking about Washington politics while awaiting the opening of the written record”  (188).  Riley then discusses how scholars gain information from speeches, conferences, and various bills, but he notes that “as the black box metaphor suggests, these outputs often say very little, with clarity or precision, about the complexities of decision making inside the White House” (189).  Riley notes that the most common source of knowledge that scholars gain is from the press.  For instance he explains that “the White House presentation of a story – what more commonly today has become known as its‘spin’– may actually conceal more than it reveals” (189).  Next Riley discusses the internal documents that have been located by the scholars.  Typically these documents are just internal paperwork (191).  But as Riley notes, “the most important opening of White House records in recent decades during a president’s term of office has occurred not because of press inquiries or presidential benevolence, but because of investigations of alleged executive wrongdoing – by those armed with the power of subpoena” (192).  Next, Riley discusses that the last source scholars use in order to gain information about the White House is the memoir – recollections of what occurred in the White House (195).  Riley then discusses the values of oral history by stating ” it salvages the only historical source available: individual memories” (195).  Riley does note that even with written records, they  “routinely contain important gaps and omissions” (196).  Lastly, Riley discusses the availability of Presidential Oral History and notes that it depends of which president and the overall presidency itself depends on how much information scholars can retrieve (202).

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