By Christopher Lee, The Washington Post
The Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace, like the president it honors, has always been outside the mainstream.
Opened in 1990 in Yorba Linda, Calif., it is the only presidential library with no original presidential papers; a 1974 law kept them in Washington out of concern that Nixon might destroy materials related to the Watergate scandal that forced him to resign.
Built for $40 million, the nine-acre complex, which includes a museum and conference space, is alone among presidential libraries in operating entirely with private funds, and is not part of the presidential library system.
All of that is expected to change this summer, as the facility joins 11 other presidential libraries operated by the National Archives under a system that began 1939.
Under President Bush’s 2007 budget, the library would receive $6.9 million for construction of a 15,766-square-foot addition to house 46 million pages of presidential documents and thousands of hours of tapes and other records held by the National Archives in College Park.
Congress gave $2 million to get the project started last year, after a 2004 law lifted the 30-year-old ban on removing Nixon’s presidential papers and tapes from the Washington area. Nixon died in 1994.
Some historians are concerned that the records transfer might increase the Nixon family’s influence over the important papers and tapes that researchers have had access to in Maryland. Also, they said, asking taxpayers to foot the bill for the construction of the storage facility at the library is unusual.
Under the presidential library system, libraries receive operating subsidies from the government but are built through private donations, sometimes with help from state and local governments. The Nixon project marks the first time that Uncle Sam is providing funds for new construction before it pays any operating expenses.
“The same people who raise money for the presidential campaigns end up raising money for the libraries,” said American University history professor Anna K. Nelson, a government documents expert who has done research in six presidential libraries. “To build a new presidential library is truly unprecedented.”
Yes and no, said Sharon Fawcett, assistant archivist for presidential libraries at the National Archives. Fawcett agrees that the Nixon arrangement is a departure from the norm — but not a radical one.
The government has paid for the renovation and expansion of libraries already part of the presidential system, including $8 million for work at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, Calif., and $17.3 million to spiff up the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum in Boston. “It’s different and it’s not different,” Fawcett said.
As recently as last March, Allen Weinstein, head of the National Archives, told library officials in a letter, “The Nixon Foundation is responsible for securing funds for the archival storage addition.”
The Rev. John H. Taylor, the foundation’s executive director, said in a telephone interview that Archives officials “knew when they wrote that letter that we’d be going after federal funding. We had never envisioned any other approach.”
Stanley I. Kutler, a University of Wisconsin historian, said the construction money is a return on an investment the foundation made in some of Washington’s most expensive lobbyists three years ago in a bid to acquire Nixon’s records and win acceptance into the presidential library system.
Senior partners Gerald F. Warburg and Gregg L. Hartley of Cassidy & Associates Inc. led the team of four lobbyists, collecting at least $460,000 in fees for their efforts, according to disclosure reports filed with Congress. Warburg worked for then-Senate Democratic Whip Alan Cranston (Calif.), and Hartley is a former chief of staff to House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.).
“This is all lobbyist-driven,” Kutler said. “The truth is that all presidential libraries have been built with presidentially raised
private funds. What is so ironic here is that Richard Nixon bragged that his library was even more different, because not only did he raise the money, but he kept the feds out.”
Polishing Nixon’s Image
Nixon loyalists long touted the library’s private status as a badge of independence, but some critics viewed it as a symbol of the length to which Nixon’s supporters would go in trying to reshape the legacy of the 37th president, the only man to resign the office. The library has a reputation for pushing the boundaries of hagiography beyond those established by other presidential libraries.
Shortly before the library opened, Hugh Hewitt, then the director, said it would not welcome researchers deemed unfriendly to Nixon, specifically mentioning Bob Woodward, a Washington Post reporter who helped uncover Watergate. Hewitt later changed his mind, and library officials said any qualified researcher was welcome.
Over the years, the museum became known for hosting public figures who polished Nixon’s image rather than scholars who might expose his flaws. People such as retired Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North appeared at the library to give speeches and sell books.
Last year, a group of historians asked Congress to stop the transformation project after library officials canceled a conference on Nixon and Vietnam. The library said too few people had signed up, but the academics suspected the motive was silencing debate. At the direction of the National Archives, the conference was rescheduled for earlier this month at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston.
Federal archivists processing the Nixon materials in Maryland dickered for years with the ex-president’s representatives over which records should be categorized as “personal” and returned to Nixon or his estate. A long registry of people had to be given a chance to review any tapes or papers mentioning them that were about to be released.
“Over 20 years or more, they have been obstacles to access in almost every way they can,” said Nelson, referring to the Nixon estate and foundation.
Three years ago, Julie Nixon Eisenhower, realizing that her father’s library would never be presidential without his White House papers, began urging lawmakers on Capitol Hill to repeal the ban on moving the documents. She and the foundation’s lobbyists got a sympathetic hearing from Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), a longtime friend; he is chairman of the Government Reform Committee, which has jurisdiction over the National Archives and the presidential library system.
Davis tucked the repeal into a spending bill that year, placating congressional Democrats with the promise of continuing public access to the records.
“Completing this effort involved building support from several executive branch agencies and key Democrats and Republicans in Congress,” Warburg said. “It is a tribute to the persistence of Julie Nixon Eisenhower that this effort has been successful.”
An End to Controversy?
Under the agreement, the Nixon Foundation will relinquish control of most of the library, turning it over to a federally appointed director and a staff of archivists and curators, who would be federal employees. The government would spend about $4.5 million a year to run the place. An official ceremony welcoming the library into the presidential library system is expected this summer.
The foundation, which had run the library containing Nixon’s pre- and post-presidential papers as well as a neighboring museum, would be left in charge of event space, a museum store and cafe, and the foundation’s offices. It also agreed to revise an inaccurate Watergate exhibit.
“The concerns of historians on an emotional basis is completely understandable,” Taylor said. “The course of the Nixon White House records since 1974 has been fraught with friction and controversy and litigation on several sides. And one of the virtues of what’s about to happen is that we hope and trust that that period is coming to an end. .. . Looking forward, I don’t think there’s any basis for concern.
Indeed, I know there is no basis for concern.”
Kutler, who sued to force the public disclosure of more than 200 hours of Nixon’s tapes, is not as confident.
“I have great difficulty believing that the guarantees that the Archives will really be running the place will come true,” he said. “Look, we’ve had 30 years of these people dealing from the bottom of the deck. There is one set of rules for everybody else, and there’s one set for them.., . Everything should have been out by now. I just think there are going to be further delays.”