The Nixon Presidential Library and Museum opened a new exhibit in Yorba Linda, Calif., and online Feb. 15, “Patriot, President, Peacemaker.” It covers Richard Nixon’s entire life, like the permanent installation there, and claims to present “a fuller picture” than ever before.
But there’s a gap, reminiscent of the 18 1/2-minute gap in the famous White House tapes. On one panel, it’s October 1973 and the Yom Kippur War is under way. Nixon is telling Henry Kissinger, “Whatever it takes, save Israel.” On the next panel, it’s Aug. 9, 1974, and Nixon is landing in Orange County, telling a crowd that he promises “to continue to fight at home and abroad for the great causes of peace, freedom and opportunity.” We go from “Peacemaker in his Time” to “Life after the White House.”
What’s missing is Watergate.
Forty years after Watergate, you might think the Nixon Library would have accepted its place in American history. You certainly would think the National Archives had; it operates the presidential libraries. But the new exhibit in Yorba Linda shows that the Nixon people are still working on a coverup. And the National Archives is not stopping them.
Defenders of “Patriot, President, Peacemaker” say the Watergate story is already told in the museum’s permanent galleries, in an exhibit that went up in 2011. That’s true, but the permanent galleries also cover most of the rest of what’s in the “fuller picture.” Now, in one part of the museum, visitors find the Watergate story told completely and fairly; in another, it’s all but nonexistent. This is something special in the world of presidential libraries: a museum at war with itself.
The new exhibit is symptomatic of a deeper malaise at the library. After installing the 2011 Watergate exhibit to widespread acclaim, the library’s director, Timothy Naftali, resigned. He has not been replaced. And the final release of the Nixon White House tapes, which was scheduled for December, has been delayed for nearly a year. What is going on in Yorba Linda? And what is going on at the National Archives in Washington?
“Patriot, President, Peacemaker” is framed as part of an ongoing celebration of Nixon’s centennial. Along with a virtual version, engagingly designed for tablets, it addresses Watergate purely as an aside. Under the “Life after the White House” heading, there’s a photo “Leaving on Marine One,” with a two-sentence caption: “On Aug. 9, 1974, Richard Nixon resigned the presidency rather than continue the political battle over the Watergate scandal, which was leading to a vote on impeachment in the House of Representatives.”
But what was Watergate? Why was it a “scandal”? Why was Nixon forced out?
Here’s what’s missing: Nixon is the only president ever to have resigned because even his fellow Republicans in Congress were convinced he was guilty of obstruction of justice and abuse of power. There was a “smoking gun” tape recording: Nixon telling his assistants to get the CIA to tell the FBI to stop investigating the White House coverup of a break-in at the Democratic National Committee, headquartered at the Watergate complex in Washington, during the 1972 presidential campaign.
As to what’s going on at the library, it appears that in the absence of a new director, the Nixon Foundation, staffed and funded by Nixon loyalists, is asserting itself again in Yorba Linda.
The foundation built the facility, managed it for 17 years and still sponsors programs there. It portrayed Watergate, in an early museum exhibit, as merely a third-rate burglary exploited by Nixon’s enemies. But in order to become the official repository of Nixon’s presidential papers and to join the federal presidential library system, the library agreed to cede control to the National Archives, and a new Watergate exhibit was set in motion. That project faced fierce resistance from the foundation. “The last fight over Watergate,” Naftali said.
One key opponent was Bob Bostock, a former Nixon aide who wrote the text for the library’s original Watergate exhibit and, as he indicates in a blog on the foundation’s website, headed the opposition to Naftali’s version. Bostock is also the co-curator of “Patriot, President, Peacemaker.” He summed up Watergate this way to a reporter in 2010: “My view is that (Nixon’s actions) did not reach the level of offenses for which he could be impeached and convicted.”
It can be argued that all the presidential libraries present a mostly positive view of their presidents. Unfortunately, that is largely true. When the Nixon Library put up its unvarnished Watergate portrayal in 2011, it did something brave and immensely valuable. Instead of serving primarily as a shrine for the veneration of the president, it presented a more responsible, independent and accurate historical account. We need more of that, at all the presidential libraries - and especially in Yorba Linda.
That’s why I asked a National Archives spokesperson, Miriam Kleiman, when a new director would be named at the Nixon Library. Her reply was disturbingly vague: “We hope ... as soon as possible.”
Jon Wiener is a professor of history at UC Irvine and the author, most recently, of “How We Forgot the Cold War: A Historical Journey Across America.” He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times. Distributed by MCT Information Services