North Carolina, the “Tar Heel State,” is the birthplace of two Presidents, James Knox Polk and Andrew Johnson. (Andrew Jackson is recorded as having been born in South Carolina, near its northern border, but some historians still argue that the seventh President came into the world just within the North Carolina line.) Polk, Johnson and Jackson all moved to Tennesse, however, on reaching manhood. And when they died, their papers, as was generally the custom before the creation of the Presidential library system, went to the Library of Congress in Washington, rather than the state of their birth.
Richard Nixon was born in California, and his career, apart from wartime service, was spent in that state, the District of Columbia, New York and finally New Jersey. But for three years, he studied in North Carolina, at the law school of Duke University. He always took pride in having received his professional education there, and while President hosted an alumni gathering at the White House.
Usually, a Presidential library opens within three or four years after a Chief Executive leaves office. Owing to the controversy surrounding the custodianship of the papers and recordings made during the Nixon Administration, this did not happen in the case of the thirty-seventh President, and during his first years out of office other issues, such as the writing of his memoirs, took precedence. But after leaving San Clemente for New York, Richard Nixon gave more thought to where his papers should find a home, and in 1981 he approached Terry Sanford, the president of Duke University, and asked whether it could provide land adjoining its campus for his presidential library. The proposed arrangement called for a private foundation to construct the building at a cost of $25 million. Upon its completion the structure would be deeded to the National Archives, and the Nixon papers, from all periods of the president’s career, would have been moved into it.
Sanford had never been a Nixon partisan; a lifelong Democrat, he had seconded the nomination of John F. Kennedy for president at the Democratic convention in 1960, and had even briefly sought that nomination in 1972 to oppose RN’s re-election. But he unhesitatingly supported the idea of a Nixon Library on the Duke campus, and made this endorsement public. He had discussed this idea with just two of the university’s trustees before going public, and although this met with some dissatisfaction, the board gave their support to him by a vote of 9-2.
But, as Raleigh News & Observer executive editor John Drescher writes in an article published in that paper on Friday, the idea of a Nixon Library met with vehement opposition with a number of members of Duke’s faculty, and from some of the students. The library proposal had its strong defenders; indeed, one of its most vocal proponents among the faculty was the late Reynolds Price, a liberal Democrat and one of America’s most acclaimed novelists. “Once we’re all dead,” Drescher quotes Price as saying, “the university would have on its doorstep a tremendous resource for historians of a very long and important period of American history.” Sanford pointed out that “there’s not any collection of presidential papers that’s likely to be studied more over the next 100 years.”
But with feelings still running high a few years after Watergate, the Duke Academic Council, representing the faculty, decided – by the slimmest of margins, 35-34 – to reject the proposal, and in the face of this decision, Sanford’s discussions with the ex-President petered out. Eight years later, ground was broken for the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda.
For a number of years, the controversy receded from memory. The one memento on campus of Nixon’s years there, an oil portrait, was kept in storage, for fear it might be damaged or stolen. But this year, after law students staged a musical about their famed precursor, the painting went on display in the law school library, and remains there. And the student show, in turn, has sparked a reconsideration of whether it was such a good idea for Duke to turn its back on Richard Nixon.
Today, the sentiment seems to be growing that to lose the Nixon Library to California was a mistake. Hutch Traver, a student leader who participated in anti-Vietnam demonstrations in 1971, gave the library proposal qualified support a decade later, and today says that Terry Sanford was “probably right” to try to bring it to the university. The title of Drescher’s article puts it more unequivocally: “Whatever Nixon Was, Duke Missed A Prize.”