No account of the controversy over the Nixon library Watergate exhibit is accurate if it ignores the ruthless tactics that the Nixon foundation board and staff used against the federal director, historian Tim Naftali. Not only did they try to derail the exhibit. They tried to derail Naftali's career. As a matter of fact, by launching and losing the last battle of Watergate, Nixon’s men earned every square inch of their new exhibit.
Their attacks on Naftali began in the fall of 2009, not because of the exhibit but because he had invited John Dean to give a speech. Nixon White House operatives hated Dean for helping send their friends to jail for their Watergate crimes. When my successor as foundation head and Richard Nixon’s last chief of staff, Kathy O’Connor, endorsed a mature and constructive response to Naftali's Dean invitation, they belittled and marginalized her.
Those who now seized control of Nixon’s foundation had a different plan for Naftali. An item appeared on the foundation web site saying that he should go run a museum for traitor Alger Hiss. Operatives recruited Sen. Lamar Alexander, a former Nixon aide, to put a secret hold on the nomination of a new U.S. archivist to pressure or get rid of Naftali. A former foundation employee who'd opposed the NARA handover wrote a column associating Naftali with "the left." Another operative filed a FOIA request to read his e-mails. Yet another accused him publicly of sending coded signals about his sexual orientation. That operative’s wife publicly accused Naftali of leaking prejudicial Nixon tapes to the media.
When Naftali offered one of Nixon's daughters a tour of the library's new quarters, she accepted only to denounce him in front of her fellow foundation leaders and demand that he leave. A top NARA official and the director of the Reagan library even joined in trying to broker Naftali’s resignation, claiming that the public would be permitted to see his Watergate exhibit if he’d quit.
Thanks to these spirit-of-Watergate tactics, we’ll never know if Naftali could have been persuaded to install a more nuanced exhibit. As he battled back, he told friends that the Nixonites were trying to “clean house” – to use their purported insider contacts to get rid of him. Having raised the stakes to that level and lost, the Nixonites were bound to end up with an unstinting exhibit. It would have made for another historic scandal if David Ferriero, the archivist of the U.S., had buckled to political and financial pressure and permitted the rewrites demanded by a Watergate truth squad that included convicted perjurer Dwight Chapin -- especially when one of its demands was to block museum visitors from seeing videotape in which Chapin claimed that Nixon had been in on 1972 campaign dirty tricks from the very beginning.
It’s of course true that abuses of power occurred in prior administrations. It will be up to historians to assess the significance of so many being aggregated in one wartime administration and whether Nixon’s massive foreign and domestic policy achievements outweigh the shame of Watergate and resignation. But getting a more balanced and yet still accurate Watergate exhibit into the Nixon library won’t just be a matter of overcoming the influence of Nixon skeptics in academe. Archives officials would also need Nixon foundation collaborators who themselves don’t have so much to lose when it comes to the sober judgment of history.