In the late 1980s, historian Maarja Krusten (shown below) was part of a team at the National Archives headed by Fred Graboske that prepared Nixon's White House tapes to be opened to the public. As they finished their work, NARA was under pressure from President Nixon and his lawyers (I was then his chief of staff) to slow down the process. Our argument was that, new laws and regulations notwithstanding, Nixon had a moral right to expect his materials to be handled more or less like those of predecessors such as Kennedy and Johnson, whose more controversial records, including tapes, remained under tight family control.
We were fighting a losing battle. Most in the federal government, the media, and academe seemed to believe that Watergate, Nixon's resignation, and congressional action had made him sui generis when it came to how his records would be processed.
That all changed in 1989 in the George H. W. Bush administration under archivist of the U.S. Don Wilson and his presidential libraries deputy, John Fawcett, a veteran of the LBJ library in Austin. We were assured that Nixon did deserve some grace after all, that the new laws and regulations actually did permit him to have something approximating the latitude that pre-reform presidents and their families enjoyed when it came to his most sensitive and controversial records.
To say that we were pleased is an understatement. And yet in politics, good news for one person is almost always bad news for someone else. The government's policy change had come at an awkward time, since Graboske's team had completed its work on the tapes, the most explosive records of all. You can study the nuances at Krusten's blog, NixoNARA, but the upshot seems to be that rather than saying to the award-winning Graboske and his colleagues that they'd done well but that the brass had decided to put the tapes back on a shelf for a decent interval, NARA officials decided the tapes needed to be re-reviewed. In other words, the tape review team, it was suggested, had done an inadequate job.
A few years later, after University of Wisconsin professor Stanley Kutler had sued Nixon and NARA to pry loose additional so-called abuse of power tapes that processors had identified, court proceedings as analyzed by Krusten show that the government wasn't entirely on the government's side:
Not only did the government not admit in 1992 that it had considered the Graobske-era processing final, despite contemporaneous documents showing it repeatedly used that term, lawyers working for the George H. W. Bush Department of Justice (DOJ) made selective use in their pleadings of information gathered in the discovery phase of the litigation. They rarely if ever quoted witnesses such as I, who had stated under oath that Graboske displayed no prejudice or bias against Nixon and never had said the president “has no privacy.”Looking back, I've found it astonishing how solicitous the first Bush administration was toward 37, who had almost no policy or political leverage outside of his trademark issue of foreign policy. I doubt that it was an act of friendship by an incumbent to a former, since the Nixon-Bush relationship struck me as cordial but cool. Another possibility -- and here is where journalists and historians must go where bloggers rarely tread -- is whether the Bush administration had come to the natural-enough conclusion that slowing down the train delivering former President Nixon's records to scholars might have been a helpful precedent for future formers.
If so, the records battle was finally lost (or won, depending on one's perspective). We settled the Kutler lawsuit after Nixon's death in 1994, paving the way for the tapes to be opened by the early 2000s (they'll finally be entirely open in 2012). Presidential records are now managed according to congressional and agency mandates, and while there will always be judgment calls and controversies, the process has been largely regularized for presidents both Republican and Democratic.
But that still leaves the curatorial side of presidential libraries' work and the possible perceived precedent of the no-holds-barred Watergate exhibit that former archivist of the U.S. Allen Weinstein commissioned from the first federal director of the Nixon library, Cold War scholar Tim Naftali. In 2009, the Nixon foundation approached the other private library foundations and tried to get them to criticize Nixon's federal director for inviting Watergate figure John Dean to give a speech. The obvious intent was to panic friends of other formers into thinking that Uncle Sam's John Dean event in Yorba Linda presaged a keynote by special prosecutor Ken Starr in Little Rock and other post-White House horrors. As Naftali proceeded with planning the Watergate exhibit, did those controlling Nixon's foundation try yet again to rally the post-presidential faithful by raising fearful specters of worst-case museum cases: Displays featuring Monica's dress at Clinton, even more room for Iran-contra (a worse scandal than Watergate, some believe) at Reagan, and alleged Bush-Cheney torture policies at Texas's newest presidential library?
If so, then one can imagine that considerable pressure may have been brought to bear on Naftali over the last couple of years. But at least we can say that he's not the new Graboske, because the exhibit's opening tomorrow.