The Facts About the Creation of the Watergate Exhibit at the Nixon Library
Numerous reports about the troubles former Nixon Library director Dr. Timothy Naftali supposedly had to endure from the Nixon Foundation over his more than three-year effort to produce a new Watergate exhibit are entirely unfounded. The Richard Nixon Foundation – the private, non-profit foundation that seeks to work with the National Archives to promote the legacy of the 37th president – did not attempt to delay or derail the new exhibit.
When the Richard Nixon Foundation turned the Nixon Library over to the National Archives (NARA) in 2007, both parties agreed that the National Archives would produce a new Watergate exhibit to replace the one that had been in place since the Library opened in 1990. They also agreed that the Nixon Foundation would have the opportunity to review and comment on the exhibit as it was being developed. This is consistent with the practice at every other presidential library in the National Archives system.
The Library’s original exhibit was removed with some fanfare in the early spring 2007. For three years, the space in which the original exhibit had been displayed remained largely empty, frustrating library visitors as they exited the library’s permanent exhibits through a 60-foot long, empty gallery. The delays also concerned the then-president of the Foundation, who sent numerous emails to Dr. Naftali expressing his irritation with the delay.
During that three-year period – a period during which the Foundation had no involvement in the drafting of the exhibit – Dr. Naftali repeatedly missed deadlines he himself had set for installation of the exhibit. Among the dates he announced in the media for opening the new exhibit were late 2007 and, after that deadline was missed, the summer of 2008.
Eventually, on May 13, 2010, the Nixon Foundation was provided, for the first time, with a draft for its review and comment. Dr. Naftali instructed the Foundation that it had to provide its feedback to him within a week – after waiting more three years for the draft.
When the Foundation received the 10,000-word draft, its president, Ron Walker, promptly assembled a team to review it and provide feedback to NARA. I was asked to head the team (I had written the original exhibit in 1990). Our team’s mission, as we saw it, was to provide NARA with specific, constructive comments and suggestions that would advance NARA’s stated goal for the exhibit: To give visitors the information they needed to make up their own minds about Watergate.
Realizing that it would have been impossible to provide meaningful feedback to the lengthy and complex exhibit draft within the one-week deadline, we requested a reasonable review time. We were provided six weeks. The review period was to begin when we received the entire proposed exhibit. And although we were still receiving material well after the clock had started in mid-June, we met the deadline NARA set for us.
We provided to NARA what I believe any fair-minded person would acknowledge were specific, constructive comments and suggestions [to judge for yourself, our memo is available here. At least that appears to be how the Archivist of the United States, David Ferriero, saw our work as he thanked the Nixon Foundation at the exhibit’s opening for “its seriousness of purpose and professionalism in what I know was a difficult endeavor.”
So what sort of changes did we ask for? Broadly they can be grouped into two categories. We asked that visitors be provided information about the environment in which President Nixon and his administration acted. And we asked that visitors be given information that would make clear that there was ample presidential precedence for what came to known as Watergate. Understanding history requires understanding the context in which historical events took place.
We thought it was important for visitors to know, for example, that when the New York Times published the Pentagon Papers (top secret documents that had not been declassified but rather supplied to the paper by a former Pentagon analyst acting in violation of the law), the Nixon Administration was carrying out numerous highly sensitive negotiations with foreign governments that could have been destroyed had they been make public.
The historic opening to China, negotiations with the Soviet Union to limit nuclear arms, and the ongoing effort to end the war in Vietnam are just three initiatives that could have been seriously compromised by further leaks of classified information. We believed that visitors deserved to have a sense of why the President reacted as he did to this unprecedented leak of classified materials, so they could decide whether his response might have been justified.
We also felt that visitors should have been reminded that Nixon was a wartime president. Dissent over Vietnam had brought Lyndon Johnson’s presidency to its knees and those who opposed President Nixon’s efforts to bring peace with honor seemed determined to do the same to his presidency.
When Nixon took office, the United States was reeling under the worst domestic turmoil since the Civil War. The assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr, and Bobby Kennedy; the often-violent demonstrations on campus colleges; and the stated goal of numerous radical groups to shut down the government all conspired to create a deeply troubled climate in the nation. For visitors to make up their own minds about Watergate, they need that historical context.
We also thought it was essential for visitors to know a little presidential history, so that they could evaluate whether what the exhibit calls abuses of power were unique in scope and practice to the Nixon White House.
That background would include the fact that Richard Nixon was not the first president to tape his conversations, but that five previous presidents had also secretly taped various conversations and phone calls while they were in office.
It would also explain the fact that wiretapping without warrants was a commonplace Executive Branch practice going back more than 35 years (such as the Kennedy-Johnson wiretaps on Martin Luther King, Jr.).
It should also definitely make clear that the use of “dirty tricks” in political campaigns was hardly exclusive to Nixon campaigns, and that Nixon had himself been the frequent victim of dirty tricks during his campaigns for the White House.
And it should note that the practice of using the IRS to harass political opponents was invented by FDR – or at least that’s what his son, Elliot Roosevelt claimed.
None of those facts excuse any wrongdoing that took place in the Nixon Administration. But they do help visitors put it in context. Such information would also help visitors conclude whether the reaction to those practices was driven solely by moral outrage or whether there might have been a political element to it as well.
After all, how can a visitor to a presidential library fairly evaluate what any president does if that visitor doesn’t know both what was going on in the world that might have affected presidential conduct and whether one particular president’s action were consistent with what his predecessors had done?
You can’t pass judgment on Lincoln’s decision to suspend habeas corpus without knowing about the Civil War. You can’t evaluate FDR’s decision to summarily lock-up hundreds of thousands of Japanese-American without knowing about the attack on Pearl Harbor. And you can’t pass judgment on Harry Truman’s decision to drop atomic weapons on civilian targets in Japan without knowing the military alternatives.
Interestingly, the other presidential libraries in the National Archives system take the approach we advocated for the Nixon Library and Watergate. Where they address what are seen as presidential failures, they also provide historical context, address a president’s motives, and generally give the president the benefit of the doubt.
The Carter Library, for example, opens its treatment of the Iranian hostage crisis by linking that event to the United States’ participation in placing the Shah of Iran on the Peacock throne in 1953.
The Reagan Library asserts in its new Iran-Contra exhibit that the scandal grew out of President Reagan’s determination to win the release of American hostages who were being held and tortured by terrorists in the Middle East.
The Clinton Library maintains that his impeachment was the result of an effort by the Republican Congress to reverse the results of the 1996 election.
All of these libraries give their presidents a fair hearing. Our review team believed that the draft exhibit we saw did not. I make no apology for advocating that the Nixon Library’s new Watergate exhibit be consistent with the approach taken at other presidential libraries.
Although not all of our suggested changes were incorporated, several very important ones were. Nevertheless, I do not believe that the exhibit, as installed, provides the context or the balance that it should. It strikes me that it is as much a polemic as the original exhibit was. The difference is that the original exhibit never claimed to be impartial.
One very wise, experienced Nixon hand told me and some other colleagues recently that the conflict over Watergate would be a hundred-year war. He’s right. There are still too many in the media and academe who earned their stripes in bringing down Richard Nixon – or who admire those who did and want to succeed them as they begin to pass from the scene. They seem to delight in reliving their greatest victory, and in trying to memorialize it for future generations.
I am convinced, however, that in the fullness of time and as passions fade, the words spoken by President Clinton at President Nixon’s funeral will come to pass: that “the day of judging President Nixon on anything less than his entire life and career [will] come to a close.” And when it does, there will be another new Watergate exhibit at the Nixon Library – one that provides visitors with the complete picture, so they can, indeed, make up their own minds.
Bob Bostock wrote in 1990 the text of the original Watergate exhibit in the Nixon Library and he headed the Nixon Foundation’s review team of the new Watergate exhibit. Most recently, he curated the Nixon Library’s Pat Nixon Centennial Exhibit, which is being presented jointly by the National Archives and the Nixon Foundation.