The Watergate Gallery chronicles the events beginning in June 1971, with the Pentagon Papers leak and the formation of a clandestine White House group known as the Plumbers and ending with former President Richard Nixon’s public explanations of Watergate after he left office. Through documents, recordings, and oral histories, the Gallery addresses issues such as abuses of governmental power, secret Presidential taping, and the role of the three branches of government and the media in this constitutional crisis. The exhibition includes a timeline of Watergate events with eight interactive screens that draw from the White House tapes and 131 oral history interviews done by the Richard Nixon Library with key participants like G. Gordon Liddy, Bob Woodward and Charles Colson. The exhibit concludes with Watergate’s legislative legacy and an interactive resource center of documents, oral histories, excerpts from the White House tapes, and television coverage from the era.The public first saw smoke from the battlefield in Yorba Linda last summer, when the New York Times revealed that the former Nixon White House operatives now controlling his foundation, including individuals involved in Watergate or Watergate-era activities, had gone to war against Naftali over the exhibit's contents. These ended up being no secret, since they were available on the library's web site. Among Naftali's interviews is one in which convicted perjurer Dwight Chapin (shown above) says that Nixon was present when chief of staff Bob Haldeman ordered him to set up a dirty tricks unit for Nixon's 1972 campaign.
As Nixon's chief of staff in the late 1980s, I oversaw the design and writing of the private Nixon library's exhibits, most of which are still on view in the federal library. But in the spring of 2007, as we prepared to give the keys to the feds, I authorized Naftali to remove the Watergate gallery which, while never successfully challenged on a factual basis, had outlived its usefulness as a museum exhibit principally because of its polemical tone. It was former U.S. archivist Allen Weinstein along with Sharon Fawcett who, at my suggestion, assigned Naftali to come up with a replacement -- a four-year-long struggle which, as details become known, history may well remember as the toughest, most thankless job ever undertaken by a public historian. Among other things, there will no doubt be lots to learn about the secret role of politics, influence, and money when it comes to curating the people's business.
Naftali (shown below with Nixon's last chief of staff, Kathy O'Connor) must be happy March 31 is coming. Nixon's former White House operatives obviously aren't. But it's a day that has to come before Nixon, at least, can get his richly deserved shot at redemption. It will help when the rest of his tapes are finally opened as well, since their periodic piecemeal openings always seem to push him a rung or two down in the public's estimation.
Still, in ten days, nearly 21 years after it opened, the Nixon library will finally be complete, a full account of what Nixon called his peaks and valleys featured in its museum, the rich story of his far-reaching, course-changing presidency in its archives.
It's about time. As 37 himself might have said, 465 months of Watergate is enough.