The late President Richard M. Nixon approved a new, candid, exhibit on Watergate for the Nixon Library in southern California.Neat trick, since he died in 1994, and work didn't begin on the new exhibit until 2007. But it reminded me of a conversation at the library yesterday with reporter Andrew Gumbel, who asked me what Nixon would've thought of the exhibit and the day.
Reading the mind of the dead is an invitation to opportunism. But I'd had to run the risk many times before. As co-executor of Nixon's estate, I tried to do what I thought was best for his legacy when making decisions about his will, White House materials, and library.
His family was sometimes part of the discernment. He had battled for years to keep his tapes and other records under wraps, but within weeks of his death, buoyed by the encomiums at his Yorba Linda funeral, they made it clear they wanted the fight with the National Archives to end. If they were wrong to think that his death had secured his place in history, they were right about laying down our sword and shield, since it sped the opening of the presidential records that will be the foundation of his legacy in the long term.
As for the new Watergate gallery, the master of realpolitik would have appreciated two realities of presidential museum politics. Library director and exhibition curator Tim Naftali put the first one best yesterday: How can a museum expect visitors to take seriously what it tells them about the successes if it Whitewaters the failures? Besides, though Nixon's White House men looked at it differently when it came to their Watergate oral histories, it doesn't make sense (and is elitist besides) to withhold information from museum-goers that scholars and journalists can find a few steps away in the archives.
So to Gumbel, I said this about what 37 just might have said: "I don't like it. I wish they didn't have to do it. But if has to be done -- if we have to get through this day so I can get a shot at redemption -- then they should do it and get it over with."