The new Watergate Gallery created by the National Archives opens Thursday, March 31, 2011. The Richard Nixon Foundation was asked to comment on a draft of the exhibit’s text. The Foundation’s response to NARA’s request was sent to Assistant Archivist for Presidential Libraries Sharon Fawcett in Washington on August 2. Since the Foundation has not yet seen the exhibit, we do not know if any of our suggestions have been incorporated. Here is the Foundation’s response memorandum:
MEMORANDUM FOR SHARON FAWCETT, ASSISTANT ARCHIVIST, OFFICE OF PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARIES, NATIONAL ARCHIVES AND RECORDS ADMINISTRATION
From: Ronald H. Walker, Chairman and President, Richard Nixon Foundation
Date: August 2, 2010
Subject: Response to Draft Watergate Exhibit
We appreciate the opportunity to offer review and comment on Dr. Timothy Naftali’s proposed Watergate exhibit.
When finalized, this exhibit will occupy the largest space devoted to a single issue in the Nixon Library. The content and design of the exhibit are obviously of great interest to the National Archives, the Nixon Foundation, the history community, the media, and the general public. It is likely true that no new exhibit in any presidential library will attract the level of scrutiny and attention that this new exhibit is likely to receive.
Accordingly, we have devoted considerable time and resources to reviewing the proposed material. Our goal has been to offer a specific and constructive set of comments for your consideration. To pull together such a response I asked several people to review the material. Serving on the team were Bob Bostock, Dwight Chapin, Frank Gannon, Tod Hullin, and Sandy Quinn. We also benefited from the independent submission by Geoff Shepard. The review team has spent countless hours analyzing the proposed exhibit, performing independent research, and developing the comments we present in this memo.
Our response is organized as follows:
- Identify our shared goals for the exhibit;
- Comments on the process used in drafting the exhibit;
- General comment on the proposed exhibit as a whole;
- Discussion of the “special environment” in which the Nixon Library operates;
- Suggestions for collaboration on future exhibits; and
- An alternate approach to the Watergate exhibit
We also attach our specific comments regarding the proposed exhibit text to this memo for your consideration. That section includes our concerns about the draft text and proposes revised text to address those concerns. We are sensitive to the need to keep the length of the exhibit text largely within the confines of the design scheme and our proposed revisions reflect that.
Shared Goals for the Exhibit
The Foundation concurs with Dr. Naftali’s oft-stated goal for this exhibit: to give visitors the information they need to draw their own conclusions about Watergate. That opportunity can only be offered through a fair and balanced presentation that provides visitors with information that will allow them to evaluate the actions of those involved and the historical context in which they acted.
This approach is consistent with what we believe visitors expect and want. We have found over the past 20 years that visitors come to the Nixon Library expecting to learn more about the life and career of President Nixon and about the times in which he governed. We have also found that most visitors expect the exhibits to reflect favorably on President Nixon — a feeling we believe to be true across the entire presidential library system. Nevertheless, we recognize that the credibility of the exhibits as a whole, and of each exhibit specifically, requires a certain balance.
We also know from experience that our visitors are interested in exhibits that engage their minds and their critical thinking ability – that they like exhibits that will teach them something they didn’t already know and get them to think about something in ways they might not have done previously. That is consistent with our expectation that visitors will leave the Library with a deeper understanding of the President’s life and career, his highs and lows, as well as of the historical forces that helped to shape it.
The Foundation shares your thesis of the evolution of exhibits in presidential libraries: When libraries first open they strongly reflect the point of view and perspective of the president whom they honor and whose supporters and friends have financed the creation of the facility.
That was certainly true of the Nixon Library and its treatment of Watergate when it opened. It is also true of the Clinton Library, which still treats President Clinton’s impeachment as driven by raw politics and does not, in any meaningful way, acknowledge President Clinton’s own failings that led to his impeachment.
We also agree that as time passes, the exhibits should change and evolve, not only to take advantage of the latest methods in exhibit practices and to include newly released historical information, but also to reflect a more balanced view of each presidency.
The Foundation accepts that the new exhibit on Watergate will not take the same advocacy approach the museum’s original Watergate exhibit took and will instead reflect a more balanced view of the entire matter.
Process for Developing the Draft Exhibit
The Foundation regrets that the process for developing the draft exhibit was not collaborative. We are convinced that had we been given the opportunity to collaborate in a meaningful way in the development of this exhibit it would be much closer to completion than it is today.
We fully recognize that, as a legal matter, the National Archives controls the exhibit space and has the right to place in that space whatever it deems appropriate. We believe, however, that in the interest of furthering the sort of cooperative and collaborative relationship that is the hallmark of the most successful examples of partnership between NARA and library foundations, the process would have benefited from consultation during the lengthy drafting process.
We were also concerned when the draft exhibit was presented to us (absent any citations and any of the various video snippets) with the request that we return our comments in one week’s time. We wanted to be certain that we would be able to respond in a thoughtful, constructive, and specific way, which is why we asked for additional time.
We appreciate your decision to grant us six weeks to undertake our review and to “stop the clock” on the process until we were in possession of the completed version. Although we have continued to receive material for review after the clock was started – and were still receiving materials as late as July 7th – we have worked hard to meet your six-week timetable. We consider your decision to grant us additional time to be a sincere expression of your desire to build a collaborative process for this exhibit and for others going forward.
In sum, we understand some of the reasons for the dilemma in which we find ourselves, and do not consider ourselves to be blameless. But we do wish we could start over, because we believe we could contribute to a more balanced and attractive exhibit.
General Comments on the Exhibit
As we detail in our specific comments and suggestions on the exhibit text (which follows this memo), we have serious concerns that the draft exhibit does not meet our shared goal of giving visitors the information they need to reach their own conclusions about Watergate.
Lack of Context: We believe that the overall impression the exhibit leaves is that President Nixon and members of his White House staff committed a broad series of unprecedented acts in violation of the law, people’s civil rights, and the Constitution, and that they acted without any possible justification, precedent, or reason – save their own deep seated and unwarranted paranoia about imagined enemies and conspiracies against them.
By failing to include any information about acts of a similar nature undertaken by previous presidents and their administrations; by neglecting to put into historical context the times in which Watergate unfolded; by not including any of the explanations offered by the President for various actions; and, by using “snippets” of oral histories to support its interpretive point of view, the draft exhibit fails to give visitors the information they need to reach their own conclusions.
The Foundation believes that a fair and balanced presentation would include information that puts the actions undertaken by the President and members of his administration in context. Such things as warrantless wiretaps, FBI background checks, and IRS audits against political opponents —not to mention the taping of conversations— were neither originated by nor unique to the Nixon Administration. This context – these facts of history – should be included to provide visitors with an opportunity to reach their own conclusions about Watergate.
To be clear, we are not proposing an “everyone else did it so what’s the big deal” point of view. But for visitors to understand the context in which Watergate unfolded they must understand that such activities were not unique in nature or scope. Indeed, as the Church Committee found, prior administrations made far greater use of many such tactics than the Nixon Administration.
Visitors must also be informed about the external domestic political and geopolitical forces that were at work and the goals that were being pursued during the Nixon Administration to help them gain a richer, contextual understanding of the pressures under which the President and members of his administration were laboring. The draft exhibit is absent any such background information.
Use of “Snippets”: In addition, the Foundation formally objects to the use in this exhibit of “snippets” from the lengthy oral interviews conducted by Dr. Naftali or his designee. Our objection is primarily based on the fact that the intended use of such snippets was not disclosed to the participants in advance of the interviews and that consent for such use has apparently not been properly obtained.
At our request, Dr. Naftali provided us with a copy of the “Gift of Oral History Interview” document signed by participants in the oral interviews (we were provided the deed signed by George Shultz as a representative example of the form that was used to obtain consent). We note that the “Gift” document conveys the interview to NARA “for eventual deposit” with NARA and that the Donor’s wish is that the “Interview be made available for research as soon as possible, and to the fullest extent possible, following its deposit with NARA.”
This document clearly does not disclose to the donor the intention by NARA to use brief excerpts from the interview as part of a public exhibit. Indeed, it specifically states that the interview will be “deposited” with NARA “for research” and “to the fullest extent possible.” Using excerpts in a public exhibit is clearly not something contemplated by the language in the “Gift” document.
Furthermore, the Oral History Association, in its guidelines in effect when the interviews were conducted, states specifically in Section 1.3.1 Responsibility to Interviewees: “1. Interviewees should be informed of the purposes and procedures of oral history in general and of the aims and anticipated uses of the particular projects to which they are making their contributions.”
The integrity of the oral interview process depends on the interviewees being fully and fairly informed about the use of the interview. It is clear to us that both NARA’s own “Gift” document and the professional standards in place at the time the interviews were conducted do not support the use of brief “snippets” of these oral histories in this exhibit.
To remedy this significant deficiency in the process, we urge that each oral history interviewee be provided with the “snippet” that is being proposed for use, as well as the text surrounding that “snippet”. We also believe that specific informed consent should then be obtained from interviewees both for the particular “snippet” proposed for the exhibit and for its intended use in the specific context of the Watergate exhibit.
It would be a real loss to history if future potential interviewees declined to participate in any NARA-sponsored oral history project because they had concerns about whether the product of the interview would be used in an unexpected way.
The “Special Environment” in which the Nixon Library Operates
The Foundation recognizes that the fact that President Nixon resigned – the first and so far only president to do so – means that the history of his presidency as presented in the museum context will always have to include a significant discussion of the events that led to his resignation.
The Foundation also expects that the approach that NARA takes in presenting the history of the Nixon presidency should be roughly similar to that taken at other presidential libraries at similar stages in their life cycles. This means that the exhibits should be fair and balanced, neither exclusively hagiographic nor unrelentingly negative.
In an effort to better understand the context in which the Nixon Library operates, Bob Bostock, a member of our review team visited the Kennedy, Carter, and Reagan libraries, both to see the exhibits and to speak with senior leaders at their foundations or libraries. He visited the Kennedy Library to see how it covers the controversies (both contemporary and historical) of the Kennedy presidency, given the fact its permanent exhibits were redone in 1993, 14 years after its initial opening (in the mature phase of a library’s life cycle). He visited the Carter and Reagan Libraries to explore how each tackles the more controversial aspects of its president’s time in office, and, more important, to learn more about the process for developing new exhibits. We find this particularly relevant since the Carter Library recently completely redid its permanent exhibits and the Reagan Library is in the process of doing so.
As a result of these visits, we are concerned that the draft of the Watergate exhibit represents a distinct and significant departure from the way in which the most controversial aspects of those other presidencies are treated at those libraries. It is clear to us that the tone of the proposed Watergate exhibit is decidedly and substantially more negative than that taken at the other libraries visited. The differences between the two are real, substantial, and undeniable.
But rather than discuss that in this document, we will contrast the process used at the Carter and Reagan Libraries for developing their entirely new (recently opened and soon-to-be-opened respectively) exhibits with the process used at the Nixon Library. The process undertaken by Dr. Naftali was not at all comparable to that used by his counterparts in Atlanta and Simi Valley.
Joanne Drake at the Reagan Foundation and Dave Stanhope at the Carter Library each described a highly collaborative process for developing the new exhibits at their respective institutions. From the beginning, both the Reagan Foundation and the Carter Center have been deeply involved with NARA in all aspects of the development of the new permanent exhibits.
Their process included numerous meetings over many months at which topics, design content, and tone were discussed, debated, and eventually agreed to by NARA leadership at the library and by the private, non-profit institution supporting the library. The process has been collaborative, collegial, and cooperative and was seen as such by foundation leadership at the Reagan Library and by NARA leadership at the Carter Library.
We also understand that rather than the exhibits being written by the directors of those libraries, the Reagan Foundation itself is the author of the new exhibits currently being finalized at the Reagan Library and that the Carter Library hired an outside historian, jointly agreed upon by NARA and the Carter Center, to write the text of its new exhibits.
We learned from both Ms. Drake and Mr. Stanhope that while there have been occasional disagreements between NARA and the respective non-profit at each library, in each case the goodwill engendered by the collaborative process enabled any issues to be resolved without creating any breaches in the relationships.
In contrast, the process used in developing the Watergate exhibit was without any meaningful collaboration. The Nixon Foundation was not invited to participate in any phase of the development of this proposed exhibit. Only when the exhibit was deemed completed (the design elements at a very advanced state, the text substantially done, and the “snippets” already chosen) were we given any opportunity to review and comment (and initially that opportunity appeared to be a less than sincere attempt to engage us in a truly collaborative fashion).
Given that the Nixon Library is a part of the National Archives presidential library system, we believe that it is reasonable for us to expect that the development of new exhibits should be a collaborative process in which both NARA and the Nixon Foundation make a sincere effort to listen to and engage the other. The fact that this exhibit was developed without any meaningful collaboration calls into question the validity of the process that was used.
We are convinced that both this particular exhibit and the interests of our long-term partnership would be better served by using this draft as a launching point for more extensive collaboration, rather than considering this response to be our final review of an exhibit that was essentially completed without any input on our part. The fact that we are including specific comments and analysis of the current draft should not in any way be considered an acceptance – much less an endorsement – of it.
Rather, we are providing numerous specific factual corrections and substantive suggestions to the proposed exhibit in order to indicate the extent and degree of our very serious concerns about it.
Collaborating in the Future
With 20 years having passed since the Library was opened, we recognize the need for a comprehensive renovation of all of the gallery spaces and exhibits. Advances in technology, the natural course of events, and revised perspectives on Richard Nixon’s life and career all suggest the need to revisit what Senator Dole called “The Age of Nixon” as presented by the Nixon Library.
As we look to work together on future exhibits, we believe that the practices followed at both the Carter and Reagan libraries can provide a good model for NARA and the Nixon Foundation.
We strongly believe that the Foundation should have the opportunity to participate in the preparation of future exhibits from the earliest part of the process. We also believe that such collaboration can and should begin now, with this exhibit, and not after this exhibit has been installed.
Specific Comments on Proposed Draft Exhibit
The Foundation has reviewed both the proposed design scheme and proposed exhibit text. We have decided not to offer any comments regarding the design at this point because form follows content, and our concerns about the text are so much more important.
Neither are we commenting in this document on what currently exists in the Watergate gallery. Our decision not to comment on these two items does not suggest an endorsement of them.
Our comments on the proposed exhibit text and the audio/video excerpts used are made in the document that follows. We incorporate much of what Geoff Shepard has already submitted (which details the thinking behind many of our suggested changes), while adding additional reasons for changing the text along with proposed revisions to the texts for your consideration.
We look forward to continuing our dialogue after you have had the chance to review our submission.
An Alternate Approach to the Watergate Exhibit
Although we have made extensive comments and suggestions on the draft of the exhibit that was provided to us, we also want to comment on the approach taken by Dr. Naftali in constructing his narrative for the exhibit.
We were interested to learn from Dr. Naftali’s presentation in Charlottesville on June 23 that he considers himself obliged by statute [the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act (PRMPA) of 1974] to make the Library’s Watergate Exhibit as complete and accessible as possible a catalog of the abuses of power of the Nixon administration.
In other words: not so much a Watergate Exhibit as a broad treatment of the various so-called “White House Horrors.”
Dr. Naftali is certainly correct that PRMPA, in Sec. 104 (Regulations Relating to Public Access) charges the Archivist with
the need to provide the public with the full truth, at the earliest reasonable date, of the abuses of governmental power popularly identified under the generic term “Watergate.”
It is important to note, however, that PRMPA deals specifically with the National Archives’ archival responsibility to safeguard, preserve, and promulgate these Nixon abuses of power papers and tapes by making them easily accessible to citizens and scholars. NARA has been meeting that requirement for many years; indeed, the process is ongoing, and it will be greatly facilitated by the opening of the new building at Yorba Linda that will finally house all the Nixon presidential materials together in one place.
The extrapolation of PMPRA’s “abuses of power” archival criterion to govern the Nixon Library’s Watergate Exhibit seems to be an overly broad reading by Dr. Naftali of the intent of the statue. We are concerned that this interpretation has rendered the proposed exhibit needlessly complex and confusing. It lacks a discernable narrative thread, it leaves out much of the touchstones that entered the language and the culture during the Watergate period, and nowhere does it provide President Nixon’s point of view on Watergate, either in its particulars or in its broader sense.
The tacit assumption in this Exhibit text is that Nixon’s conspiratorial mindset is self-evident; and the tacit attitude of this Exhibit text is that Nixon’s “conspiracy thinking” was paranoid. Those are hardly uncommon opinions; they may well be so; and they are certainly arguable. They are, however, far from proven.
If a case is going to be made that Nixon exhibited conspiracy thinking – and especially if that case is going to be the basis on which the National Archives’ Nixon Presidential Library’s Watergate Exhibit is going to be based – then a lot more thought and space needs to be devoted right up front to defining and explaining exactly what conspiracy thinking was; about how and why and when it developed; and about how and why it was or wasn’t (or the degrees to which it was or wasn’t) justified and/or relevant to each of the examples that will be adduced to illustrate it.
As the saying goes, even paranoids have enemies, and if conspiracy thinking is going to be the foundation of the case against Nixon, then at the very least he deserves to have some evidence presented to explain (if not support) his view of things. The one point of view missing from this Watergate Exhibit is Richard Nixon’s.
Perhaps nothing illustrates that better than this: of the 54 video “snippets” that the draft exhibit includes, only two feature President Nixon. This seems to us to a gross imbalance for an exhibit in the Nixon Library, particularly since there is so much material of available. By contrast, the Kennedy Library tells its story “through President Kennedy’s eyes and narrated in his voice.”
Some critics believe that the original Watergate exhibit went too far in representing Richard Nixon’s version of these events; this exhibit overcompensates by going 180 degrees in the opposite direction.
The draft exhibit is infused with a comfortable confidence of tone: Everybody knows that Nixon was brought down by his unreasonable (and, ironically, unnecessary) paranoia about the Kennedys and the media and the Jews and everybody else he thought was against him. The single sentence chosen for quotation from Nixon’s long farewell speech (“always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself”) is a perfect example of this attitude and technique at work.
But shouldn’t what will almost certainly be NARA’s most visible and controversial presidential library exhibit meet a higher, more rigorous intellectual and scholarly standard?
Museum and Library exhibits (and especially permanent exhibits on controversial subjects) don’t have to be – and shouldn’t be – deadly dull. User-friendliness is a valid and important consideration and even criterion. Nor are we suggesting that the Exhibit’s content should be scholastically neutered to excuse any of the crimes and misdeeds that fall under the Watergate umbrella. We are not trying to sanitize or even deodorize the subject matter. But we are suggesting that there is a level of intellectual rigor and objectivity that shouldn’t be sacrificed to accessibility or for the sake of illustrating a thesis (even one that seems to be so self-evident).
Watergate was a scandal unique to the Nixon administration. The Watergate Exhibit should tell that story – factually and as fully as necessary. But many of the other abuses of power were the 1969-1973 versions of practices that were neither unique nor uncommon with other presidential administrations before – or since. If they are going to be included under the rubric of Watergate, they need to be set in historical – and contemporary – context.
A SUGGESTED TEMPLATE FOR A WATERGATE EXHIBIT:
The topics that a Watergate exhibit should cover
- The break-in
- The cover-up
- The cover-up unravels
- The investigations
o Senate Watergate (Ervin) Committee
o House Judiciary Committee
o Watergate Special Prosecution Force
- The role of the media
- The resignation
- The pardon
The approach to each topic should follow the time-honored way of telling a story by supplying the facts:
The remaining elements must be approached more carefully because they involve elements of interpretation:
To the extent that the answers to these last two questions – why? and how? – are still the subjects of dispute and controversy, these answers may necessarily seem less complete; and, to many, less satisfactory. But facts are facts. And anything that isn’t a fact is an opinion.
This approach would also be fully consistent with the approach taken at the Carter Library to cover the Iran Hostage Crisis, which we know you see as a model for a mature presidential library.
SOME WATERGATE-RELATED PHRASES AND TOPICS THAT A WATERGATE EXHIBIT SHOULD EXPLAIN
- At that point in time
- Big Enchilada
- “Cancer on the presidency”
- Dirty tricks
- 18 ½ Minute Gap
- Deep Six
- Deep Throat
- Executive privilege
- Expletive Deleted
- Follow the money
- Great Stone Face
- “I am not a crook”
- Modified Limited Hangout
- “My mother was a saint”
- Nobody drowned at Watergate
- Our long national nightmare
- Play in Peoria
- Rosemary stretch
- Saturday Night Massacre
- Sinister Forces
- Smoking gun
- Twist slowly in the wind
- What did the President know and when did he know it?
- White House horrors
SOME ELEMENTS THAT A WATERGATE EXHIBIT SHOULD CONTAIN
Photographs and biographies of the principal participants
News video footage of the major public events, including: President Nixon’s major Watergate-related speeches and news conferences;
Coverage of the major events on TV newscasts; the Ervin hearings; the Cox press conference; the House Judiciary Committee Impeachment hearings and votes, including Barbara Jordan’s remarks; the Nixon resignation and farewell speeches; the departure from the South Lawn; President Ford’s Inaugural Address; President Ford’s Pardon speech.
An opportunity to listen to Watergate tapes — particularly the “smoking gun” and the “cancer on the presidency.”
Again, we want to thank you for affording us the opportunity to review and comment on the draft Watergate exhibit. We believe that our concerns, though numerous and considerable, should not prove to be an impediment to reaching common ground in advancing our common goal: giving visitors the information they need to make up their own minds about Watergate.
I look forward to hearing from you and to continuing our work together, both on this exhibit and in future exhibits.