Forty years after the Watergate scandal forced President Richard Nixon’s resignation, Shakopee is finally coming to terms with the involvement of its most well-known native son.
Maurice Stans, onetime U.S. secretary of commerce and finance chief of the infamous Committee to Re-elect the President, was accused by some of raising money that Nixon used to fund illegal activities, including the burglary of the Watergate Hotel.
Stans was never convicted of anything more than technical violations, but his reputation was permanently stained, and Shakopee was never eager to point out its connection with the scandal. Stans, who died in 1998, left his most lasting mark on the city in the name of Scott County’s historical museum, the Stans Museum, which he pressed for 15 years to found.
Now, after years of downplaying its association with Watergate, that museum is doing an about-face and devoting a painstakingly assembled exhibition to the scandal that shook the country.
“When I first got here,” said the museum’s director, Kathleen Klehr, “we were depicting his life in a way that highlighted his having been secretary of commerce, but glossed over anything else.”
Klehr has learned in nearly a decade of leading the Stans Museum that there is no single story line in Shakopee when it comes to the benefactor. “Some people here think he was the biggest crook ever,” she said, “and wouldn’t come to the museum because it had his name on it. Others felt he got a raw deal. We just put out the information; we don’t take a stand.”
The decision to bust out with a big Watergate show has not pleased everyone. “I had a conversation on this just the other day,” said Mayor Brad Tabke. “Is it a good idea or not to be celebrating, or memorializing, Watergate? I think it’s part of our history. And it’s not like it’s six months ago. Most of those wounds have healed or scabbed over and it’s OK to talk about this thing.
“Besides, we are privileged to have documents no one else has. And it’s a fascinating story.”
An irreverent view
The exhibition, far from solemn, is downright sassy. There’s an “I am not a crook” photo booth, a Nixon mask and a dart board, and a hands-on exhibit with magnets allowing museumgoers to reconstruct shredded documents. On the walls, Watergate figures are linked with audio tape, an allusion to the profane recordings that helped to topple Stans’ boss.
Even before the exhibit opens, director Klehr has had to defend herself in an era of sharp political polarization. “Someone said, ‘How about showing a Democrat in a poor light?’ And I said, ‘If we had the stuff to support that, and a Shakopee connection, we’d think about it.’ ”
Museum curator Theresa Norman spent months researching Stans, and was struck — looking back at the documents — by how “convoluted it was, with everyone trying to pin it on everyone else.” There were signs, she said, that Stans was regarded by Nixon’s inner circle both as an upright bean counter from whom the truth needed to be kept and as a potential fall guy later on.
Researcher Rachel Houck has for months been going through the boxes of material Stans left behind. She has found him to be a voracious hoarder of everything — right down to name tags. She has also discovered that life in the upper reaches of democracy is stuffed with fancy touches, from medallions carrying the president’s profile to elegant chairs with the great man’s name inscribed, as well as fancy invitations and menus.
She has tweeted and Facebooked the occasional amusing find, although she hasn’t yet reached the Watergate period itself. After wading through so much trivia, “I’d love to find a journal full of personal thoughts,” she said.
A nonissue now?
The Watergate stain contributed to a tortured history around the museum itself. Stans battled uphill to get it started; the city itself was never willing to take it on. It became a home instead for the Scott County Historical Society, but with a lot of space set aside for Stans material, including collections of tusks and the like from a lifetime of global travel, some of it with high-powered weaponry.
The Shakopee that resisted its notorious son has by now dwindled away. The Shakopee of the early ’70s, the time of Nixon’s impeachment and resignation, was just a country town of 7,000, not today’s growing suburb nearing 40,000.
“I actually think it’s a nonissue for people today,” said Jerry Kucera, a 29-year resident. “I mean, when was that, ’73, ’74? I don’t think most people even know about it, I really don’t. Those that do know would have forgiven or forgotten. That is what we do as Americans. We move on.”
About half the town, roughly 20,000 people, wasn’t even born when the scandal flared. Only about 600 people still live in homes they occupied in the ’70s or earlier, according to the latest U.S. Census surveys.
Director Klehr has not consulted the remaining members of the Stans family, none of whom are local, about mounting the exhibition. But she is sure that the cautious piety that kept the museum sidestepping Watergate in the past was out of keeping with the man himself.
“He would have appreciated a warts-and-all approach,” she said; after all, he wrote two books addressing the scandal and his role in it.
The staff of the museum seems to have emerged from its research with a lot of sympathy for Stans. Said Klehr: “He was vilified in the press, which ate him alive … it really bothered this man.”
She herself has been caught up in his wishes. In leaving an endowment, Stans was so concerned to keep the money in his hometown, supporting loans, that the museum has gotten a piffling return compared with what the stock market has done in recent decades.
The bank account has meant interest of, “like, .0003 percent or something,” she lamented. But she did finally manage to get that condition reversed.