Nancy Kegan Smith’s career is one for the record books

Nancy Kegan Smith’s career is one for the record books
Nancy Kegan Smith introduces Laura Bush at the National Archives on June 23, 2011.

By Olivia Anderson |

Although she came from a family of historians, Nancy Kegan Smith didn’t necessarily foresee a career for herself as an archivist when she first graduated college. Yet almost five decades later, she’s built a robust repertoire of wild anecdotes and preserved many salient moments in presidential history.

“I feel very privileged, for a lot of my career, to be helping preserve history and see history in the making,” Smith said.

Smith was born in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 19, 1950 to mother Adrienne Koch, who was an American studies professor at the University of California at Berkeley, and father Lawrence Kegan, a marketing economist. The family moved to Berkeley, California when Smith was 3 years old. When she was 13, the family moved back to D.C., and then in 1964 to a home on South Lee Street in which she still resides today with her husband Dr. Danny Smith and son Kegan Koch.

Nancy Kegan Smith and her husband, Dr. Danny Smith.

Smith attended T.C. Williams High School, now called Alexandria City High School, and graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a bachelor’s degree in history and government.

Upon graduation, Smith asked the director of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library in Austin for teaching job recommendations. The director and supervising archivist subsequently learned about Smith’s credentials and background, and asked her if she’d come in the next day for an interview for a job as an archivist at the LBJ Library.

After acing the interview and accepting the new position, Smith would go on to work at the LBJ Library – which is part of the National Archives and Records Administration – from 1973 to 1989, at which point she moved back to D.C. to work on presidential records. All told, she worked for NARA for a total of 39 years.

Once back in D.C., Smith served as the special assistant to the head of presidential libraries in the downtown archives building. She would later go on to work for the office of general counsel where she headed access to presidential collections, and then was appointed director of the Presidential Materials Division, a job that corresponds with the White House on presidential records and artifact issues, from which she retired in 2012.

Ladies first

During her tenure with NARA, Smith worked on a variety of issues, ranging from training new archival staff to handling special access requests for presidential documents. But there was one aspect of her job that she found particularly moving: researching and preserving documents about the first ladies.

This interest started in Austin, when she researched and interviewed Claudia Alta “Lady Bird” Johnson, First Lady of the United States as President Johnson’s wife. Smith recalled being inspired by Lady Bird’s commitment to environmental justice, civil rights, the war on poverty and her overall integrity.

From 1973 to 2012, Smith worked at the National Archives and Records Administration.

“She was such an incredible woman … she had a podium and she used it,” Smith said. “I realized first ladies were not given the credit they deserved as individuals, or how substantive how many of them had been and how they have improved the United States and the world.”

Some other inspirational first ladies Smith researched and sometimes worked with included Betty Ford for raising breast cancer awareness “at a time when you didn’t talk about cancer”; Nancy Reagan for her “Just Say No” campaign against drugs; Laura Bush for helping to calm the nation after 9/11; Michelle Obama for her “Let’s Move!” initiative supporting military families; Hilary Clinton for her work pushing toward universal health care; Rosalynn Carter for her mental health advocacy; and Dr. Jill Biden, who has championed free community college and universal pre-school.

Smith published a book about first ladies records, called “Modern First Ladies: Their Documentary Legacy,” and authored or co-authored chapters on Michelle Obama and Lady Bird Johnson in “A Companion to First Ladies” and “Media Relations and the Modern First Lady from Jacqueline Kennedy to Melania Trump.” She has also presented programs and lectures on first ladies and presidential records at conferences and to universities.

On and off the record

While working as director of the presidential materials division, Smith would respond to questions about how to file records, electronic records practices and storing artifacts and gifts.

A large portion of Smith’s job included advising on what constitutes a “presidential record,” and what does not.

According to the Presidential Records Act, the law governing presidential records, the definition of a presidential record includes any documents created by the president or adjacent staff “whose function is to advise or assist the president, in the course of conducting activities which relate to or have an effect upon the carrying out of the constitutional, statutory, or other official or ceremonial duties of the president.”

The Smiths attend the George W. Bush Library dedication in Dallas, Texas on April 25, 2013.

Although Smith handled a significant number of presidential documents over the years, she said the most interesting type of documentary materials are “by far” the presidential tape recordings. NARA currently holds three large collections of presidential tape recordings: John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon.

What makes these recordings so engrossing, she explained, is the fact that you can hear people conversing by phone about issues as varied as civil rights, war, their advice or a personal conversation. For example, one recording conveys Jacqueline Kennedy talking with Johnson and thanking him for a letter he wrote her in December 1963. At one point, Kennedy acknowledges how rare it is to receive a letter in a president’s handwriting. She then says she has more letters in Johnson’s handwriting than her husband’s and starts to softly weep.

To this day, Smith travels giving lectures with the recording collections, which she said is profoundly impactful on viewers and sometimes moves them to tears.

“[The recordings] are so incredible – it’s like you’re a fly on the wall,” Smith said. “ … You can just see people tearing up when they hear her. People are so quiet, you could hear a pin drop on the floor. There’s nothing that really gives you that feeling.”

However, presidents no longer make tape recordings, as NARA now obtains all documents at the end of their tenure. In 1978, after President Richard Nixon attempted to destroy recordings during his tenure following the Watergate scandal several years prior, the Presidential Records Act was passed.

This law states that “any records created or received by the president as part of his constitutional, statutory, or ceremonial duties are the property of the United States government and will be managed by NARA at the end of the administration.”

As for textual documents, Smith said some of the most fascinating back and forth memos include the Highway Beautification Act of 1965, which was stalled in Congress; the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which almost failed; Lady Bird Johnson’s Whistle Stop campaign in 1964, in which she advocated for civil rights; and Nancy Reagan writing Raisa Gorbacheva before a summit expressing hope that their husbands would be able to negotiate a limit on nuclear weapons.

Smith and her team would also store gifts given to a president, foreign or domestic, and offer advice on whether they were worth storing in the National Archives – or if doing so was even feasible.

During one presidential administration, whose name she chose not to divulge, the first lady was given multiple Arabian horses while visiting a South American Country. Smith received a call from National Security Council staff asking NARA to collect the horses, a task very much outside the organization’s scope.

During another presidency, a former secretary of state flew back to the United States with the Romanian president, who had brought in an endangered Romanian sheepdog puppy to gift the president. Once again Smith received a call, this time asking NARA to pick up the dog.

“I’m going, ‘Like a china dog?’ And they go, ‘No, the puppy’s really cute and he’s roaming around.’ And I go ‘The Archives doesn’t take anything live,’” Smith laughed. “I can give you so many fun stories.”

Age of technology

Over the years technology began to advance, thus requiring archivists to adapt. According to Smith, several lawsuits came about as the result of this advancement during the Reagan and Bush administrations regarding what really constituted the definition of “presidential records.”

Smith during a virtual first ladies program in March 2021.

For example, it previously was unclear whether there needed to be both a textual and electronic copy of digital correspondence such as email. Now, there is set practice for electronic records: If something meets the standard for presidential records, it is a record – regardless of whether it is also printed out as a textual file.

One administration asked NARA whether a Tweet is a record, to which Nancy responded that it very well could be if it met the definition, considering that definition is “all-encompassing.”

“It is a very complex issue, but if you stick with the definition [of] ‘How was the item used? Was it used to communicate official, constitutional, statutory or ceremonial duties?’ [If so] then yes, it is record, and it doesn’t matter if it’s a Tweet.”

In addition to her career as an archivist, Smith was a two-term president of Gadsby’s Tavern Museum Society and is a current board member of the Mortar and Pestle Society of the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum and the Cosmos Club. She also serves as vice president of the First Ladies Association for Research and Education, which helps to promote the knowledge of first ladies.

Throughout her life and decades-spanning career, Smith has learned immeasurable lessons about power and government. Some of her more notable takeaways are the importance of keeping one’s feet on the ground, knowing how to say ‘no’ professionally and maintaining integrity.

In front of Smith’s former office at the National Archives sits a statue of a woman, accompanied by the saying, “Past is Prologue.” It’s a mantra she lives by, and one she hopes future leaders will, too.

“That is so important,” Smith said. “I really feel, on wars, on the mistakes that presidents make, on crisis situations, if there was a better sense of looking at what worked historically and what didn’t [with] the records of the past, maybe we wouldn’t repeat the mistakes in the future.”