Sunday, April 3, 2011

Hissing And Moaning

As reported last week, the anger of former aides of Richard Nixon and his chief of staff, Bob Haldeman, toward Nixon library director Tim Naftali (left) reached a fever pitch in mid-2009 when he invited former White House counsel John Dean to give a speech. They consider Dean a rat for testifying against Nixon and helping send their friends to jail for their Watergate crimes.

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.


J.C. Marrero said...

I haven't seen the exhibit, but agree with what Kissinger said in his memoir he told Nixon at the outset of Watergate, "what must be done sooner or later, do sooner."

My only cavil would be that, while admittedly Nixon did wrong, his crtics did not always proceed with snow white love for the constitution as their sole impetus.

Many--still today--rejoice at the humiliation visited upon Richard Nixon and at his broken legacy. Whether because of the Hiss matter, the 1950 senatorial election, the irony of Nixon finally getting the big prize while two sainted Kennedys rested at Arlington, the poison of Vietnam, the counter-culture's ascendance, there was a visceral need to get Nixon by many.

I hope that the Watergate exhibit takes a look at the context of Watergate from both sides. I would argue that Watergate produced no heroes.

Nixon came pretty close to the truth when he said Watergate was one part wrong-doing, one part stupidity and one part political vendetta.

The key question that one hopes is addressed by a Watergate exhibit is the ultimate one, should Nixon have been forced to resign?

And the core of that issue is whether undue violence is done to the American body politic when a constitutionally elected president is forced to leave office before the second half of his second term, short of having been convicted of treason or bribery.

My view is that Congress has a moral obligation out of respect to the electorate to help the president save himself--to have compromised on the release of the tapes wherein the president admitted wrongdoing but was able to preserve his dignity and that of his office.

But the heated (oil-deprived) atmosphere of 1973-74 would not allow for such a via media. I think our country would have been better off without a truncated presidency. "Other crimes and misdemeanors", really means 2/3's of the Senate and half the House really, really dislike you.

Fr. John said...

Nicely said, Juan. Each in their ways, the impeachment or near-impeachment of Johnson, Nixon, and Clinton all show that it's an essentially political act. Whether there's much flavor of that in the new exhibit, I'll tell you when I've read it. If there's not, whether a different, less confrontational process could have resulted in a different exhibit -- just as complete but with, as you suggest, rounder corners -- we'll probably never know.

J.C. Marrero said...

Of the three presidents you mentioned, Andrew Johnson was most "qualified" for removal, Clinton the least.

De facto, Johnson betrayed the purpose for which the Civil War came to be fought---emancipation. Apparently, he really was too drunk on March 4, 1865, to have comprehended Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address.

And, yet for a century after his trial, the outcome was hailed as a Constitutional triumph (see "Profiles in Courage".)

Today, historians tend to agree that he was charged with the wrong offense (firing Stanton as Sec. of War without Senatorial consent) and should have been charged and removed for blocking a meaningful Reconstruction policy.

So, certainties are subject to reexamination. Best for museum exhibits to leave a little wiggle room in all but the most clear-cut cases.

MK said...

Some of this is a bit tough for me to assess because
(1) I uncovered most of the abuses in the records with which I worked at NARA (I was Fred Graboske’s Watergate expert);
(2) I then became subject to certain behaviors which seemed to stem from the same acculturation that had led to some of the AOGP behaviors.

OK, having stated the “impairment,” I’ll put in my 2 cents worth!

Is it possible that the Hastings-era NLNP archivists met the fate they did for the same reason that Goldstein was replaced at BLS in the Malek Jew counting episode? Don’t like an outcome? Take out the people who stand in your way. (I certainly thought of that as I watched Naftali prepare his exhibit.)

There do seem to be some well worn grooves, at least to my eye. Easier to identify individuals (Goldstein at BLS, us at NLNP, maybe Naftali) as obstacles, personalize the problem, and to neutralize the individuals, one way or another, than to examine the root causes of a problem or to work through the situation in another way. Act that way, and feel it's justified, and some qualities you might have developed in a different profession, start to atrophy. Especially if there's no one around who can say, no we shouldn't rid you of Thomas Becket! So there's a lot in the mix.

Take a look at this article . Some professions have clear codes of conduct. (John, you know why I am drawing on this; others don’t. Let’s not elaborate on that, if you don’t mind. I sent you an email explaining why.) The presidency doesn’t. Not to the extent codified at the link. Sure, you’re supposed to obey the law of the land. But it’s just like jaywalking – some people think they can get away with more than others. Moreover, you have to fake your way into office to some extent. I mean pander to some voting blocs, exaggerate your opponents’ weaknesses, demagogue, if that’s your style. None of that really helps prepare you to pivot and develop a mindset that enables you to avoid the impulse to send Malek to count Jews or whatever--because you sure do have the power to demand it. It's much easier to justify your conduct in such a situation than in a profession with a clearly defined code of conduct. And peer review.

Impeachment certainly may have some political overtones. But if what you did wasn’t that bad, you may face the threat of impeachment, but you won’t face a guilty verdict. They may go through the show but fail to get the votes to find you guilty. (Ken Gormley’s book, The Death of American Virtue, provides a fascinating examination of mistakes made by many of the players in the Clinton case.)

On a tiny scale, I’ll use the example of what happened to me in 1995. The person who tried to get me in trouble with the IG complaint didn’t understand my professional acculturation or workplace environment. That acculturation turned out to be a sturdy shield for me—I had signed for annual leave and was easily cleared. Someone else might have cut some corners, either due to a different workplace culture or personal qualities, and been trapped.

You really do have to have heightened situational awareness, especially when you are battling people who are acting politically on the other side, and not waste your capital on stuff like the BLS thing or trying to get Schultz to use the IRS against opponents. Proportionality definitely becomes a a factor in responding to situations. Some of what trapped Nixon was pretty petty and not worth taking the risk, by him or in many of the cases, by his subordinates. Judged by ROI, the risks for some of it (like the Fielding break in) far outweighed the benefits.

MK said...

Sorry, looks as if my link was bad. The site I had in mind for the discussion of regulated professions was this one: