In the OC Register, columnist Brian Calle opines on the portrayal of the 37th President in the new Watergate exhibit at the Nixon Library and the future of the presidential library system:
Some controversy over the recently revised Watergate exhibit at the Nixon Presidential Library & Museum in Yorba Linda has provoked some questions over presidential libraries, their value, purpose for public consumption and their role in the remembrance of past presidents.
One docent at the Nixon library, my Register colleague Will Alexander, opted to resign in protest of the new exhibit after 10 years of volunteer service. And friends and former colleagues of Richard Nixon have been critical of the museum’s new director, Timothy Naftali. Some critics have even suggested that the Nixon library is becoming an anti-Nixon monument.
What is the purpose of a presidential library? Are presidential libraries meant to showcase the positive legacy of a president or provide an unfiltered historical – and perhaps, critical – view of a former U.S. commander in chief?
On March 31, the library opened a new exhibit on the Watergate scandal that forced Nixon to resign the presidency in 1974. It replaced the original Watergate exhibit, which dated back 15 years and in which Nixon was involved in curating. The new exhibit offers a much harsher depiction of Watergate.
The visual imagery and titles reflect a strongly critical vibe, if not a completely anti-Nixon tone to the presentation. The start of the gallery features big, bold, red and black letters spelling out “Road to Resignation.” Other parts of the exhibit are labeled “Dirty Tricks and Political Espionage” and “The Cover-Up, Break-In and Evidence,” just to give a few examples. After walking through the gallery, one would be hard pressed to feel warm and fuzzy about the former president, who died in 1994 and is buried on the library grounds.
Also raising some eyebrows are some of the speakers featured in events at the library since Naftali officially took the reins in 2007, when the federal government took over the administration of the library. Former Democratic Sen. George McGovern who lost a bitter presidential race to Nixon in 1972, has spoken at the library, as have Watergate journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, and former Nixon aide John Dean, the foremost whistleblower in the Watergate scandal.
Of course, there is no disputing the facts on display at the library but those close to Nixon and his admirers have been critical of the new approach, which they believe is skewed towards focusing on Nixon’s darkest moments.
Bruce Herschensohn, a former special assistant during the Nixon administration and personal friend to Nixon, told me he rarely goes to the Nixon library because of the way his former boss and friend is now portrayed. Herschensohn, who had once donated his personal papers to the library has taken them back and instead given them to Pepperdine University because, as he said, he does not “trust the government” to oversee them.
At the heart of the controversy is the belief among some – including Alexander and Herschensohn – that Naftali is attempting to disgrace the legacy of Nixon. “Every indication to me is that Tim Naftali is anti-President Nixon,” Herschensohn told me by phone. “From the kind of guests he invites, to the whole feeling of the library … he is trying to make it totally different from the kind of presidential library I’ve been to for other presidents.”
“I expect and want presidential libraries to be staffed by those people who have been ardently supportive of that president,” Herschensohn said. “I do not want to go to any presidential library that tells stories opposing those things a president did while in office. I do not want to go to President Clinton’s library and see Monica Lewinsky’s book for sale just like I do not want to see Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein or any of those people who oppose President Nixon selling their book at his library, especially on the grounds where President and Mrs. Nixon are buried.”
Naftali says he was bound by law to explicitly highlight abuses of government power. He pointed me to the 1974 Presidential Recordings and Materials Act, which applies specifically to the Nixon presidency, “stipulates that those materials relevant to the understanding of abuse of governmental power and Watergate are to be processed and released to the public prior to the release of all other materials.”
It is unusual for a presidential library to depict abuses of power, Naftali notes “but this library is a product of Watergate.”
Some question why the National Archives, with a core responsibility of protecting and making accessible presidential papers, is involved in the library’s exhibits and guest lectures. Herschensohn said, “Why they should be in charge of exhibits or speakers? That has nothing to do with the duty of the archives. The speakers and the exhibits are not archival business.”
What complicates the management of presidential libraries is their structure; they are sort of absurd quasipublic-private partnerships where private foundations often build the structures but the National Archives manages and oversees the presidential papers.
Is there serious value in publicly funded shrines for American presidents?
In the case of Nixon, his presidential papers had been seized by the government, and to get them released to his library certain conditions had to be met, including bringing in the National Archives to administer the facility. “President Nixon is the only president who had his papers seized by the federal government,” Naftali told me. Until Nixon, presidential papers were considered private property, presidents would then deed them to the federal government and take a tax deduction for doing so.
“This library did not have to be private,” Naftali said. “The National Archives was not asking for it to change but with that change there were implications, and one of those was that the Watergate exhibit had to change.”
In this digital age though, it would seem less important to have the original presidential papers on site at a presidential museum, especially when the information could be searched on the Internet and duplicates could be made for presidential libraries. If that were the case, the National Archives could keep all original documents at its Maryland facility and leave the business of running libraries and museums to private entities, keeping taxpayer dollars out of it and giving more control to local constituencies perhaps more invested in the legacy of a particular president.
“I am not so sure if Nixon were alive today that he would be so adamant himself about having the original presidential papers at his library if he knew what it would bring,” Herschensohn said.
There’s a lesson here for presidents – and taxpayers – about government involvement in presidential libraries and the politicization that comes with it. Perhaps it would more prudent to keep such libraries completely private and rely on digitized versions of the papers.