July 17 marked the twentieth anniversary of the opening of the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, California, and the Nixon Foundation celebrated the occasion with what it called "the largest gathering of Nixon family, Nixon Administration alumni, campaign workers, Nixon Foundation members, fans and friends since the grand opening of the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace." The schedule promised "three days of incredible experiences," including "a reception and dinner poolside at the Western White House in San Clemente," "an outdoor BBQ around the farmhouse where RN was born" and "a delightful breakfast cruise on John Wayne’s The Wild Goose." Also: a panel discussing "How Will Richard Nixon Be Remembered."
One thing was missing from the reunion: a visit to the library’s new Watergate exhibit, which was supposed to have opened July 1—but didn’t.
I asked Timothy Naftali what happened. He had been named library director when the National Archives took over management in 2007. Before that, the library had been run privately by the Nixon Foundation as the only presidential library outside the National Archives system. Naftali, previously a prominent University of Virginia historian and author of Blind Spot: The Secret History of American Counterterrorism, had made the design of a new Watergate exhibit one of his top priorities. He told me the delay was caused by the Nixon Foundation.
The 2005 agreement with the National Archives gave the foundation the opportunity to "consult" on the new Watergate exhibit—although not to change it. When Naftali submitted his proposal in April, the foundation requested an extended period for its response, which meant the exhibit would not be open when the foundation held its celebration.
Obviously, the Nixon Library has to have an exhibit on Watergate; the question is what it will say. At this point, Naftali said in an interview, the decision is in the hands of the archivist of the United States, David Ferriero. An Obama appointee, Ferrio is the first actual librarian to head the Archives (he had previously headed the New York Public Library).
The original Watergate exhibit, which opened in 1990 to widespread criticism, was removed with the agreement of the foundation in 2007 in anticipation of the National Archives taking over. Naftali explained that "the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act of 1974, amended in 2004, stipulates that the archivist is responsible for the complete truth about governmental abuse of power in the Watergate affair. This is mandated by Congress. We can’t be a party to something that misleads the public about presidential abuses of power."
The original exhibit claimed to give visitors a chance to listen to the "smoking gun" tape of June 23, 1972, in which listeners can hear Nixon conspiring to get the CIA to stop the FBI from investigating the break-in. Release of that tape in August 1974 led to the collapse of GOP support for Nixon in Congress, with Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee announcing they would vote for impeachment. But at the listening station you heard a long commentary by a narrator about how the story had been exploited; somehow you never seemed to get to the smoking-gun part.
The key argument in the old exhibit was that a third- rate burglary had been exploited by the president’s enemies in the press and Congress; that the country overreacted to the smoking-gun tape; and that Nixon wasn’t really involved in the cover-up, because he was dealing with bigger things in foreign and domestic policy and with his re-election campaign.
In conversations over the past three years, Naftali has expressed the hope that when the new exhibit finally goes up, it will show that Watergate was part of a broad abuse of power that precipitated a major constitutional crisis involving the presidency, the Congress and the Supreme Court. The old exhibit began with the Watergate break-in. The new exhibit, Naftali told me, should begin with the Pentagon Papers, the secret history of the Vietnam War given by Daniel Ellsberg to the New York Times in 1971—which aroused Nixon’s fears about secrets being leaked. The old exhibit ended with Nixon departing the White House in a helicopter after resigning. The new exhibit, Naftali says, ought to end with the pardon of Nixon by Gerald Ford.