On July 4, 1966, Lyndon B. Johnson surprised even some of his closest aides by signing the Freedom of Information Act. Johnson was said to have hated the “government-information bill”; he questioned the motives of the Democrat who was its chief architect, and was so disturbed by its passage that Bill Moyers, then L.B.J.’s press secretary, warned its supporters not to get their hopes up. With Congress in recess and the President vacationing in Texas, it was widely expected that Johnson would pocket-veto the bill.

Yet Johnson—possibly bowing to pressure from within the party, as well as from the American Society of Newspaper Editors—reversed course and signed the F.O.I.A. bill into law. His ambivalence was clear. There was strikingly little fanfare, especially considering the date. Johnson held no official signing ceremony, and the statement that he issued made no mention of the Fourth of July, leaving observers to ponder whether the timing was a symbolic flourish or simply a practical matter, determined by the pocket-veto deadline. His comments dwelled nearly as much on the limitations of the new law as its potential to transform the relationship between citizens and their government. The people, he said, should have as much information as possible—or, rather, all “that the security of the nation permits”:

No one should be able to pull curtains of secrecy around decisions which can be revealed without injury to the public interest. At the same time, the welfare of the nation or the rights of individuals may require that some documents not be made available. As long as threats to peace exist, for example, there must be military secrets. A citizen must be able in confidence to complain to his government and provide information, just as he is—and should be—free to confide in the press without fear of reprisal or of being required to reveal or discuss his source. Continue>>>