Change Comes to Nixonland

Change Comes to Nixonland

Will the Nixon Library actually portray Watergate accurately?


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.

The new exhibit, Naftali says, should include developments preceding the break-in at the Watergate: Nixon’s "enemies list," his use of the IRS against some of those "enemies," the creation of the "plumbers unit" to stop White House leaks, the break-in at Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office. Other new sections would include the evolution and unraveling of the cover-up and the July 1974 Supreme Court decision United States v. Nixon, in which the Court ruled unanimously that Nixon could not withhold the White House tapes from the special prosecutor under a claim of executive privilege.

The proposed new exhibit includes video screens that will display documents, TV news from the period and clips from among 125 interviews Naftali has conducted as part of an extensive oral history project. He has long hoped that his interviews touching on Watergate would become part of the new exhibit. They include Nixon White House counsel John Dean; chief "plumber" and organizer of the Watergate break-in G. Gordon Liddy; Bob Dole and Dick Cheney; and Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, who had been on the Watergate prosecution team, each telling the story from his own perspective.

When the Nixon Foundation people arrived at the library in mid-July for their reunion, the old Watergate gallery was officially under construction, but they did see three exhibits that had been installed: a big display about the White House taping system, listening stations with the smoking-gun tape and a panel about the United States v. Nixon decision (which is now part of California’s high school curriculum, as required by the state’s history standards).

The political heart of the reunion was the "How
Will Richard Nixon Be Remembered" panel. In it, moderator Ron Walker, who had been the top advance man for the Nixon White House and is now president of the Nixon Foundation, said, "We all know there was Watergate." But, he added, "there was so much more." Surprisingly, the emphasis here was on the liberal side of Nixon’s record. His trip to China came first—"in a thousand years, they will still be saying Nixon went to China," Walker said. On the panel Fred Malek, who had been deputy director of Nixon’s Office of Management and Budget, talked about Nixon signing the National Environmental Protection Act, the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act; others talked about Nixon having signed legislation creating the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and about his role in what Walker called "the peaceful desegregation of Southern schools, which Nixon gets very little credit for." Nixon, the panel emphasized, did all this when the Democrats held a majority in the House and Senate, and it was "truly a bipartisan effort," so different from Washington today.

Larry Higby, who had been an assistant to H.R. Haldeman (Nixon’s chief of staff and a key Watergate cover-up conspirator), said that Nixon not only ended the war in Vietnam but that his Strategic Arms Limitation Talks with the Soviet Union were "the first successful attempt to limit nuclear warheads," which marked "a complete change in how the US and the USSR viewed each other."

Even more surprising, the panel emphasized Nixon’s pioneering role in bringing women into high positions in Washington. Nixon staff assistant Barbara Franklin, who had led a task force on recruiting women in government, said "there was a bra-burning movement at the time" but that it was Nixon who "brought equality for women into the mainstream of American life." Under Nixon, she said, the first women admirals and generals were appointed, along with the first women FBI agents and park rangers—facts that, she claimed, "totally escaped the American public." All this, she said, "opened a Pandora’s box" (an unfortunate choice of metaphor). Other panelists, including Bobbie Kilberg, who had been a staff assistant on Nixon’s Domestic Council, emphasized that Nixon introduced revenue sharing with the states. She did not point out that such a policy is diametrically opposed to the current GOP refusal to give federal aid to recession-crippled states.

Walker said, "Richard Nixon did more for the Native American than any president in history." Kilberg talked about Nixon’s work on behalf of the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico. Blue Lake is sacred to the Taos Pueblo, she said, but it had been "taken unfairly forty years before and put in the National Forest." Nixon gave it back to them. "That is an example of the humanism of Richard Nixon—he would stand up for what he believed was right," she said—and the audience applauded.

Malek pointed out that "an abundance of leaders came from the Nixon White House." He listed "Colin Powell, Alan Greenspan, Pat Buchanan, Bill Safire, Hank Paulson and Nino [Antonin] Scalia," as well as George H.W. Bush, whom Nixon appointed ambassador to the UN after Bush lost a Congressional election in Texas. "Without Nixon, there would have been no President George H.W. Bush," Malek said, "and thus no President George W. Bush." The audience did not applaud.

It’s worth remembering how different Nixon was from today’s Republicans. It’s also necessary to remember the abuse of power that ended his presidency. The Nixon Foundation will submit its critique of the proposed new Watergate exhibit later this summer, followed by a response from Naftali (this exchange is intended for the archivist only and will not be available to the public). Then, eventually, the archivist will decide how Nixon should be officially remembered, and what the public should be told about Watergate.

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that moves the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories to readers like you.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Thank you for your generosity.

Ad Policy