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Technology's Gain, Presidential History's Loss

Technology's Gain, Presidential History's Loss

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Hillary Clinton said that she had turned over to the state department the 30,490 emails her staff judged to be related to her job as secretary of state. But more than half of the emails from 2009 to 2013 — some 31,000 were personal and deleted.

“No one wants their personal emails made public, and I think most people understand that and respect that privacy,” Clinton told reporters.

Doris Kearns Goodwin, who wrote biographies of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt and others, said, “They have marriages and children and rich private lives that are all mixed up with their public lives. As a biographer, that’s what you want.”

Robert Dallek, a presidential historian, demurred. “If she becomes president, we would eventually want to have all the intimate details of her life before the presidency. It’s all part of the historical record.” There was the possibility that one day they would add to the story of a presidency.

According to The New York Times, Dallek was the first historian to be given access to President Kennedy’s medical records in the late 1990s. From Dallek the world found out that Kennedy suffered from multiples health problems. It provided a new perspective on his llfe and his presidency, Dallek said.

For Goodwin the problem goes deeper than the loss of email records. She fears technology is diminishing the human presence. “What will be missing in the future is the best of the material we have today which is handwritten letters and dairies,” she said.

Several of the important people close to Lincoln kept detailed diaries that were of central importance in helping her write her 2005 book. In the 20th century, Harold Ickes’ meticulous diaries as secretary of the interior kept the New Deal years alive for many readers, including myself. They were an essential source for humanizing FDR and his own team of rivals.

While writing "The Bully Pulpit," a book on Theodore Roosevelt and Howard Taft, the presidents' thousands of letters full of gossip and matters of state enabled Goodwin to draw profiles of human warmth.

“You feel like you’re looking over their shoulder as they write,” Goodwin told The Times. Emails, by comparison, are shallow and less personal. “I would never write about a modern president,” she said.

This article originally appeared in the San Leandro Times.

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