The Nixon library, which opened in 1990 in Yorba Linda, about 40
miles southeast of Los Angeles, has become the focus of a
behind-the-scenes tussle over how the story of the only person to
resign from the U.S. presidency should be told.
It pits Nixon loyalists who want the library to do more to portray
the 37th president as a great leader with a range of domestic and
foreign accomplishments, against historians and others who say that
the library — as a symbol of U.S. history and education — has a duty
to also provide an unvarnished, and unflattering, lesson on Nixon's
A key issue is whether the Nixon Foundation, which is run by former
aides to the president and Nixon family members and is raising $25
million to renovate the library, is trying to delay the appointment
of a new library director by the National Archives so the renovation
can be done without interference from those not loyal to Nixon.
The Nixon library has been without a director for more than two
years. The last director, Timothy Naftali, resigned shortly after
installing a Watergate exhibit that detailed Nixon's role in trying
to cover up his administration's involvement in the burglary of
Democratic Party offices in the Watergate complex in Washington.
Members of the Nixon Foundation vehemently objected to the exhibit,
and several boycotted its opening in 2011. The other exhibits at the
library are reverential toward Nixon.
The foundation, which is run by a board of directors led by former
Nixon aide Ron Walker, rejects the notion that it has tried to stall
the appointment of a new library director.
Some Nixon historians aren't convinced. They include Stanley Kutler,
who successfully sued the National Archives to force the release of
White House audio tapes of Nixon and his aides discussing Watergate.
Kutler calls the situation at the Nixon library "troubling."
The tension at the Nixon library reflects how the memories of
Watergate, and its impact on Americans' trust in the presidency,
remain bitter and unresolved for some.
It also is a reminder of the tensions that can develop over
presidential libraries between library foundations — which typically
are staffed by loyalists who largely fund and build the libraries
and seek to cast their president in a positive light — and
historians and other outsiders who want a non-partisan portrayal
that includes details on the president's worst moments.
Bill Clinton faced some criticism after the opening of his
presidential library in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 2004 because of
how it portrayed his relationship with White House intern Monica
Lewinsky and his impeachment. The library's exhibit lumps the
scandal with other controversies in a section dedicated to the
"politics of persecution."
At George W. Bush's new presidential library in Dallas, Texas, the
controversy over Bush's decision to invade Iraq because it allegedly
had weapons of mass destruction is portrayed in a way that aims to
justify the decision.
Visitors can play a game in an interactive exhibit called "Decision
Points Theater," where they must decide whether to invade Iraq. If
they choose not to invade, a video image of Bush appears to explain
why the invasion was the right thing to do.
The exhibit has been ridiculed by critics of the Bush
Some historians see such efforts to shape the memory of a president
as not surprising, but unfortunate.
"It's a serious problem," said H.W. Brands, a presidential
historian. "The foundations want to operate museums. They don't want
to operate libraries." So the libraries become "like a ...
EMPHASIZING NIXON'S ACHIEVEMENTS
The National Archives, based in Washington, is responsible for
running all 13 presidential libraries, which span the
administrations from Herbert Hoover to Bush.
But the archives fund only the salaries and day-to-costs of
operating the libraries. The private foundations that support the
libraries raise the money to build the facilities and fund exhibits.
The Nixon Foundation's board includes Nixon's daughters, Tricia
Nixon Cox and Julie Nixon Eisenhower, and Nixon's brother, Edward
Nixon. The foundation president is Sandy Quinn, who worked on
Nixon's unsuccessful campaign for California governor in 1962.
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That was two years after Nixon, then Dwight Eisenhower's vice
president, lost the presidential election to John Kennedy. In one of
the great political comebacks in U.S. political history, Nixon was
elected president in 1968.
Quinn says the new exhibits planned by the Nixon Foundation will
include a deeper look at several of Nixon's achievements, including
his role in creating the Environmental Protection Agency and his
ending of the draft by returning the U.S. military to an
Fred Malek, a former Nixon aide in charge of
the fundraising, said: "It really is time to look at some of Richard
Malek's sentiments reflect those of many Nixon loyalists who were
not happy with the Watergate exhibit that Naftali installed at the
library in Yorba Linda, where the late president was born 101 years
The foundation has no official veto power over library appointments
by the National Archives, but it must be closely consulted by the
Archives and has offices at the library. Because the foundation is
the sole provider of renovation funds, Kutler and other historians
and critics say this makes the archives wary of upsetting foundation
Kutler said he was told by Archives officials that a new library
director had not been appointed because of a dearth of good
"I'm sorry, I've been around a long time," Kutler said. "It's hard
to believe they can't get a good candidate."
Susan Donius, Director of the Office of Presidential Libraries at
the National Archives, has been acting director of the Nixon library
since Naftali's resignation, from her office across the country in
Donius said the Archives is using a recruitment firm to help in the
search for a new director at the Nixon library. She declined to say
why it has taken so long to find a new director and referred
questions to David Ferriero, the archivist of the United States.
Ferriero declined to comment.
Jon Wiener, a history professor at the University of
California-Irvine, said the Archives' long delay in appointing a new
director in Yorba Linda "suggests an inability of the Archives and
the foundation to agree on a new candidate."
"SHRINES" OR LIBRARIES?
Quinn, the Nixon Foundation's president, said that "it's absolute
nonsense that we are holding up or blocking the appointment of a new
director. We are anxious for a new director."
Naftali, the library's former director, said he left the library
because he believed his work was done there once the Watergate
exhibit was in place. He said he expected someone to replace him
soon after he left to foster a culture of nonpartisanship at the
"It's much easier for a foundation to renovate a presidential museum
if you don't have a strong director in place, and a piece of cake if
you have no director at all," said Naftali, now director of the
Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Archives at New York
Naftali added that presidential libraries "tend to be shrines unless
people inside and outside the National Archives bring pressure to
make them nonpartisan. My concern is that the National Archives has
not hired a director and its ability to counterbalance the Nixon
Foundation is undermined by the fact that there is no director at
Yorba Linda after nearly two and half years."
Wiener, the UC-Irvine history professor, said: "It appears that in
the absence of a new director, the Nixon Foundation, staffed and
funded by Nixon loyalists, is asserting itself again at Yorba
(Editing by David Lindsey)
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