Like Barack Obama's least successful critics, Nixon's men and their fellow travelers used Cold War rhetoric against the apostate. Historian Maarja Krusten writes at NixoNARA:
Susan Naulty, who used to work as an archivist at the private Nixon library, wrote critically in The Washington Times in 2009 of Tim’s decision to invite...Dean to speak at the library. In what seemed to me to be a fundamental misunderstanding of Naftali’s actions, she complained, “The question, though, nags: Why promote John Dean? Why does hostility toward Mr. Nixon continue unabated on the left?” My reaction was very different. I didn’t see the invitation to Dean as promoting him but merely one of providing an opportunity for one of many players in historical events to speak at the library. And of course, having once been mistaken for a liberal by Nixon’s side, I shook my head at the use of terms such as hostility and “the left.”I'm the one who publicly lodged that accusation against Krusten, who campaigned for Nixon in 1968, when she was 17, and voted for him four years later. I've since apologized.
Another Naftali critic, writing on the foundation's blog, called on him to go run a museum honoring Alger Hiss (above), who was a Soviet communist agent. Crude as it was, the comment helped clarify the factors that rendered Naftali's critics impotent in the last battle of Watergate.
First up is the sheer injustice of the smear. Naftali is an empiricist and a civil libertarian who loves his country and would despise a traitor like Hiss. Author of a respectful biography of George H.W. Bush, Naftali presents, as Nixon usually did, as a non-ideological moderate and foreign policy realist. He and Nixon would probably have found relatively little to disagree about in either domestic or international affairs.
The Hiss smear did have one obvious salutary outcome. It motivated Krusten, a knowledgeable insider with strong ties in the archival community, especially at the National Archives, to start her blog to provide Naftali with rearguard support in Washington as he researched, wrote, and defended the library's new Watergate exhibit.
Another irony of the ideology-based campaign of Naftali's critics is that most writers in the first wave of Nixon revisionism in the 1980s, especially when it came to his domestic policies, were moderates or liberals. When I first recommended Naftali to the then-archivist of the U.S., Allen Weinstein, as the first federal library director, it wasn't because of his views about Nixon but because, as one of the brightest Cold War experts of his generation, he would take Nixon seriously, no matter where the massive record he left behind led scholars. The case is often made that a presidential library director should like or love the president in question. I'd say it's the job of the president's family and friends to care about him. It's the federal director's job to care about history.
Historical inquiry certainly hasn't been the strong suit of the lower-echelon, non-policy White House aides now controlling Nixon's foundation. Instead, they've devoted much of their energy to trying to rehabilitate their mentor Haldeman, muzzle their enemy Dean, and keep the museum-going public from seeing brand-new videos in which their friends Fred Malek and Dwight Chapin discuss counting Jews in the federal government and Nixon's alleged involvement in dirty tricks. But the restoration of Nixon's legacy will ask something more of his advocates than tending 40-year-old grudges and alliances. Too bad Nixon's foundation has just apparently cut itself off from the one institution, the former Nixon Center, which devoted itself not to refighting old wars but applying Nixon's principles to help keep the U.S. from becoming overextended in new ones.
Third, Nixon operatives with ties and interests in the Reagan and Bush-Cheney camps may not grasp how far the GOP has drifted from 37's centrist moorings. If few Republicans outside the pressure cooker of the Haldeman alums' mutual admiration society were willing to join them in denouncing Naftali as a leftist, it may be because some of them have decided that Nixon was one, too.
Fourth, while Nixon's red-baiting was generally rooted in substance, the Naftali critics' left-baiting was just the result of his allegedly not being devoted to Nixon. And yet it's easy even for his friends to admire Nixon's qualities of mind and heart and his peacemaking achievements and still be disappointed by his failures and errors. There's not much resonance anywhere, left, right, or center, for a purist position on our most controversial modern president.
Instead, Nixon legacy building will be generational, arc-of-history stuff, the work of many decades, as he himself understood. It will grow out of careful study of his times, policies, and temperament by scholars rather than maneuvers by operatives whose reputations may be just as weighted down by Watergate as his without being buoyed by anything like his brilliance and dogged vision.
Finally, Haldeman's men claimed to be fighting a battle for Nixon's reputation that was actually lost years ago. Ask the average fifth grader what she knows about Nixon (I have, many times), and she'll usually say Watergate. Like it or not, he's taken that hit. If his library tried to cover it up with a whitewashed museum, most visitors would know it. When they see Naftali's all-in exhibit, most of them will say, "I already knew about that." Why spend months battling an exhibit that does nothing to worsen Nixon's reputation? If we're confident about how history will ultimately view him, we needn't fear people knowing the truth about the trip to China, the break-in at the Watergate, or anything in between.
Naftali's foes may have thought they could end the left-wing threat by bringing what they took to be their political savvy and insider contacts to bear. But for all these reasons and perhaps others, they didn't get much if any traction. So John Dean gave his speech. Tim Naftali opened his Watergate exhibit. And now it's pretty clear who's in charge at the Nixon library.