Shortly after becoming director of the Nixon Library in 2007, Dr. Timothy Naftali invited the nation’s press in to witness the removal of the Nixon Library’s Watergate exhibit. Declaring, “I can’t run a shrine,” he gleefully presided over the destruction of the exhibit, which resulted in numerous articles reporting that the “whitewash of Watergate” was over at the Nixon Library.
Dr. Naftali went on to assert, “The challenge is to present a controversial, traumatic and important story in a fair and historically accurate way.” By any measure, he has failed his own definition of success. Two years later, there’s still no Watergate exhibit. And nothing points to that failure more persuasively than his hosting of John Dean at the Nixon Library.
Allowing John Dean to appear, without any counterbalance on the program, is not fair. Neither does it serve historical accuracy. It is, to put it charitably, nothing more than a cheap publicity stunt, unworthy of any presidential library operated by the National Archives.
When Dr. Naftali went after the original Watergate exhibit with sledgehammers swinging, I took it a bit personally. I was the author of that exhibit. I wrote the text, selected the quotes, chose the photographs and artifacts, and constructed the timeline. I did so in close consultation with President Nixon. I was proud of the job we had done telling the story from RN’s perspective.
When the Library opened in 1990, the Watergate exhibit was, of course, the focus of much scrutiny. Those who found fault focused on the fact that the exhibit didn’t consist of a lengthy mea culpa. They were accurate; it didn’t.
Instead, it sought to share with visitors President Nixon’s point of view on Watergate. When I gave the former President my first draft of the exhibit text, I wrote in my cover memo, quoting Six Crises, ‘‘‘It is not my purpose to relate the complete story. What I shall try to do in these pages is to tell it as I experienced it.’”
That’s what the Watergate exhibit sought to accomplish. It wasn’t a whitewash; it was, in fact, the single largest exhibit in the entire facility. Stretching along the length of a 65-foot long room, it covered everything, from the break-in through the resignation, including the 18 ½ minute gap and the charges about back taxes and improvements to the Nixon homes in San Clemente and Key Biscayne.
President Nixon saw Watergate as his “last campaign.” As the introduction to the exhibit explained it, RN viewed “Watergate” as the fight “for his political life against those who sought to reverse the stunning mandate he had received from the voters on November 7, 1972.”
The exhibit never pretended to be an objective study of Watergate, as if such a thing was then – or is even yet – possible. Yet, the critics howled, as if sharing President Nixon’s view of events in the Library he and his supporters built was a mortal sin. And while the exhibit came under criticism for its point of view, I was pleased that from the day it opened until the day it was removed, not a single error of fact or omission was found in the exhibit. We had constructed a thorough, complete, and factually accurate presentation.
Shortly after Dr. Naftali took over as director, I briefly corresponded with him in an effort to make him aware of the background behind the creation of the original Watergate exhibit and to suggest that the exhibit itself was an artifact. It was quickly obvious that he had no interest in anything I had to share with him. He was clearly on a mission, not to “set a new tone,” as he claimed at the time, but rather to perversely use the Nixon Library as a forum for denigrating the Nixon legacy.
By hosting John Dean without offering any balance, some might conclude that Dr. Naftali is practicing that for which he criticized the Nixon Library – presenting a one-sided version of events. But the truth is far more disturbing and troubling than that.
Tim Naftali is hiding behind the mantle of scholarship and balance to mask what appears to be his true intention: to use the Nixon Library to diminish Richard Nixon and thus raise his own standing in the academic community. In that sense, he is a kindred spirit of John Dean, who used his position in the Nixon administration to destroy the Nixon administration, thereby securing his own reputation among the so-called political elite.
John Dean has been living off of Watergate for nearly 40 years. Let’s hope Tim Naftali’s similar effort is much, much shorter.