Elected to the House of Representatives in 1952 and serving for 14 consecutive terms, Republican Bob Wilson saw plenty of paperwork come across his desk. In 1973, he began depositing it for future researchers at San Diego State University. By the time he spent his bounty, he had donated 474 record cartons, 70 flat boxes of pictures and memorabilia, and 50 scrapbooks.
Wilson is best known for his work from 1959 through 1980 on the House Armed Services Committee and for political campaigning on behalf of Eisenhower and Nixon. In 1971, he arranged with the president of International Telephone and Telegraph (ITT) for a $400,000 donation to bring the 1972 Republican National Convention to San Diego. When columnist Jack Anderson later exposed the deal as possibly linked to a favorable outcome for ITT in an antitrust suit, the Republicans changed their convention site to Miami Beach.
With his last contribution of papers in 1980, Wilson restricted the public's access to all but 89 boxes of the donation. He stipulated that the restriction could be lifted after 20 years, or his death, whichever came first. The former congressman died of Alzheimer's in 1999, and SDSU lifted the restriction in 2000.
The enormity of the gift has been both a boon and a burden to SDSU's Special Collections and University Archives, which, according to its website, houses "approximately 37,000 volumes, 270 archival collections, and 369,000 other items such as photographs, art prints, postcards, memorabilia, scrapbooks, etchings, and oral histories." Its interim head, Leah Rosenblum, tells me that donors have the option of restricting their gifts for reasons of family privacy, protection of an ongoing career, or copyright safety. She says that her staff of four, with the help of an intern, "has intellectual control over" the 89 boxes that have been at least initially processed in the Wilson collection. That means that if you ask them to look for material on a particular subject, they probably can find it. But, adds Rosenblum, "The papers are not yet processed to the highest archival standards." The collection still does not have a complete finder's guide to everything it contains.
Since 1998, volunteer John Steiger has been coming periodically to further organize the papers. A history instructor for 25 years at Mesa College, Steiger has provided a detailed organization of 35 boxes having to do with San Diego issues. A glance in one of the boxes shows a series of letters Wilson wrote to constituents demanding better airport safety after the September 25, 1978 North Park crash of Pacific Southwest Airlines flight 182. In one that raised the problem small planes posed, written on November 8 the same year, Wilson stated, "I, too, am a frequent user of Lindbergh Field and share your apprehensions. At the moment, I am not at all clear where all this is going to come out. Please be assured of my deep concern and determination to see that appropriate action is taken to alleviate the circumstances which gave rise to the near-misses you refer to."
Rosenblum shows me what a complete finder's guide for an archival collection looks like. Former San Diego city councilman and county supervisor Jim Bates, a Democrat, served eight years in the House of Representatives, starting in 1983. Bates donated his congressional papers to SDSU after his defeat by Duke Cunningham in 1990. The guide to his papers, completed by the special collections staff, lays out an alphabetical listing of such subject categories as "Border Protection Act," "Development of Broadway Complex," and "Letters about Navy Procurement." The category names are written on the appropriate folders inside acid-free record cartons. The Bates's materials require five record cartons to house them.
According to the website "Biographical Directory of the United States Congress: 1774 - Present," not all of San Diego County's former representatives have donated their congressional papers. Among more recent representatives, Clair Burgener, Bill Lowery, and Brian Bilbray show no papers on the site's "Research Collections" link. To learn where their papers might be, I called the offices of both Bilbray and Lowery, the latter now with the Washington, D.C., lobbying firm Copeland, Lowery, Jacquez, Denton, and White. Aides for each promised to retrieve the information but did not call back. In recent weeks Lowery has been scrutinized for his close relationship with House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis, himself under investigation for possible "earmarking" corruption. Several weeks ago, Democrat members James Copeland and Lynn Jacquez separated from the parent firm. Lowery's congressional papers would be interesting, for during his ten years in the House he served on the Appropriations Committee too.
Bilbray, of course, is not finished in Congress, having been elected on June 6 to replace Duke Cunningham in the 50th Congressional District seat. But prior to the special election, Bilbray had been out of office since 2000. During the campaign, his opponent, Francine Busby, used his post-congressional-service work as a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., to link him to corruption in Congress.
The congressmen might consider that they can receive a tax deduction for their charitable contribution to a qualified organization. If they believe their papers are worth more than $5000, they must produce a written appraisal from a qualified appraiser.
Even Cunningham, who left office in the midst of his eighth term last fall and is now in prison for corruption, has donated 300 boxes of congressional papers for future research. In a May 14 story on the donation to California State University, San Marcos, SignOn San Diego reported that the House of Representatives "encourages all members to preserve their documents upon leaving office." The words are those of the House Committee on Administration's John Brandt, who also stated, "The papers are considered the personal property of members of Congress upon their resignation or upon their leaving office.... It's up to (the members) what they want to do." That allows the representative to be selective in choosing which papers to donate and what restrictions to place on them. Cunningham had discussed donating his papers to Cal State San Marcos for several years prior to his departure from office.