Nearly 40 years after President Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace because of the Watergate scandal, the debate over how his legacy should be defined seems as vibrant as ever — at Nixon’s presidential library, at least.
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 US 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 who say that the library — as a symbol of US history and education — has a duty to also provide an unvarnished, and unflattering, lesson on Nixon’s downfall.
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 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 library “troubling”.
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.
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. 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 US military to an all-volunteer army.
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 Maryland. Donius said the Archives is using a recruitment firm to help in the search for a new director at the Nixon library.
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 said he left the library because he believed his work was done there once the Watergate exhibit was in place. “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 University.
Naftali added that presidential libraries “tend to be shrines unless the National Archives brings pressure to make them non-partisan”.