Thursday, August 14, 2014

Serendipity Doo-Dah

It was a Cinderella story.

We dedicated the old, private Nixon library, where I served as director beginning in 1990, on an oppressively hot day that July. We had four presidents at the dedication ceremony, including Richard Nixon and the incumbent, George H. W. Bush. We threw a glittering fairy tale ball at the Century Plaza in Los Angeles with an open bar, attended by the noblest political hacks from every corner of the kingdom.

We called what we had constructed in Yorba Linda, around Nixon's humble birthplace, a presidential library. It had gleaming new galleries, shiny terrazzo floors, exquisite bathrooms, and a stately reading room for scholars.  It cost a then-princely sum of $25 million. The epic buildings and grounds definitely looked presidential. But the shoe didn't fit, because we were a stepchild, reaching for a birthright to which we weren't entitled.

It wasn't hard to see why. Within our heavily fortified walls, in all our 13 acres, there wasn't a presidential document to be found -- not a memo, a letter, a scribble, a tape, or even a tape gap. Someone claimed we had secret UFO records, which would've been useful if it were true. But Nixon's White House records, including the infamous secret tapes, were all back in Washington.

We opened an archive with pre-presidential records in 1991, but it didn't convince scholars that our hearts were pure. Besides, the phone book didn't say we were the Nixon pre-presidential library. As at all new libraries, our museum put the best face on our man's legacy. But unlike our better-heeled cousins, we couldn't say that scholars and the public could walk around the corner and get the straight story of Nixon's presidency in the records. To see those, people had to visit a National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) facility in Alexandria, Virginia or, later, College Park, Maryland.

We buried Mr. Nixon on the grounds in 1994, beside his first lady, who had died the year before. In the years that followed, as his co-executor I helped settle two pieces of federal litigation that had kept the Yorba Linda stepchild from joining the libraries which, beginning with Herbert Hoover's, are all run by NARA. One lawsuit had to do with access to Nixon's tapes, the other compensation for Congress's taking of all his White House records.

That done at last, we notified Uncle Sam that we were prepared to receive callers. But he was a reluctant suitor. For several years, the phone never rang on Saturday night. If you think I'm about to stretch the metaphor to include a dowry, you're right. We finally had to pay a lobbyist with ample Democratic bona fides $1 million to get legislation written in the House permitting NARA to ship Nixon's records out of Washington to Yorba Linda and paying for an archives wing for the documents, gifts, and tapes.

Along the way we withstood Nixon's fractious family (which torpedoed my first effort to federalize the library in 1996-97 because they thought, wrongly as it turned out, that there would be a bigger pot of gold if we kept fighting in court) and political hacks hanging around at court who were mad that we were paying big bucks to fancy Democratic lobbyists instead of good Nixon cloth coat lobbyists.

Finally, it all came together. By the spring of 2006, our courtship was on the brink of consummation. The glass slipper was tickling our toes. All we needed was a federal director -- somebody who was, frankly, not I. Archivist Allen Weinstein and his deputy, Sharon Fawcett, asked me for names. I gave them just one: Timothy Naftali, a Cold War scholar who had run a groundbreaking presidential tapes project at the University of Virginia's Miller Center. Within days, they'd offered him the job. In an article announcing the Naftali appointment, the LA Times' Christopher Goffard wrote:
John H. Taylor, executive director of the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace Foundation, called Naftali "an independent-minded straight shooter" and "an ideal choice" for the job.

Taylor said Naftali's work with presidential recordings was particularly relevant, because the National Archives plans to transfer nearly 4,000 hours of Nixon's presidential tapes to the library, many of which are difficult to hear.
Tim meets the press
After we handed the library over to the feds in 2007, I remained as Nixon foundation chief. Though friends now, Tim and I had our ups and downs. When I complained about Tim to Allen Weinstein, he reminded me that Naftali had been my idea. When I complained to Naftali, he reminded me that I'd asked him to take the job. Weinstein compared us to squabbling brothers. Our skirmishes were trivial compared to the systematic although impotent assault that the John Dean-hating disciples of disgraced Nixon aide Bob Haldeman mounted against Naftali to try to stop his new Watergate exhibit, which opened in 2011.

I left the library in 2009, pleased, at least, that it was safely in federal hands. I never expected anyone to celebrate my years in Yorba Linda. Tim and I both are here to say that if you want to make friends, don't be director of Nixon's library. My able successor at the Nixon foundation, former Nixon chief of staff Kathy O'Connor, who also ran afoul of the good old Haldeman boys, can sympathize.

And yet I write today to battle for my footnote in Nixon library history. Two weeks ago, from their publicist at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, I received a complimentary copy of The Nixon Tapes by Douglas Brinkley and Luke A. Nichter. Their 758-page book of transcripts is a vital addition to the Nixon bibliography. In the acknowledgements, the authors mention Naftali's work with presidential recordings at the Miller Center and then write:
[S]o it was serendipitous that the National Archives selected him in 2006 to be the first director of the federalized Richard Nixon Presidential Library...
Serendipity is chance, accident, or coincidence. Naftali's appointment was none of these, and saying it was not only obscures my role, incidental though it may have been, but also suggests that the then-archivist of the U.S., no mean scholar himself, had blundered into a smart pick, like Percy Spencer's accidental discovery of the microwave oven.

I actually thought that this was a small thing among gentlemen of the realm. I have a passing acquaintance with Brinkley. He reached out to me when it seemed the Nixon estate might be in the position to help with access to the tapes. I've also known Nichter for several years. I admired his efforts to make the Nixon tapes more broadly available to the public. We had lunch a few months ago. Last week in Washington, he graciously acknowledged the NARA archivists who faithfully cared for and processed the Nixon records while absorbing undeserved, politically inspired criticism, including from those of us on the Nixon side.

So I wrote them both an e-mail praising their work but saying that I felt as though I'd been written out of the story. I asked that they alter the wording in subsequent editions. I didn't suggest how that might be done, but as I look at their phantasmagorical sentence, it seems to me that just changing "serendipitous" to "appropriate" would do it.

Brinkley didn't reply, but Nichter did. Rejecting my claim, he plunged his lance in deep. "This is the first book of its kind," he wrote. "We expected that one of the criticisms we would get is that we didn't do enough in some shape or form. That often happens to those who are trying to start an entirely new conversation." So I'm not only out of line with my request. I'm nipping predictably at the heels of courageous visionaries. It's after midnight, anyway. I'll just head back to my pumpkin.

8 comments:

Luke said...

(I split my comment into two, since it goes over the 4.096 character limit in one post.)

Thank you for your blog, John. I’ve been a reader for some time, but I think this is the first comment I’ve left. If one can’t get a fair hearing at one’s own blog, where can one? :) I’m also glad to see you returning to RN-related topics.

I have enjoyed our private email exchanges over the years, which culminated in lunch late last year in YL. I am still thinking about those blue corn tortillas, and I’ve thought about you when I’ve driven by there since. Doug and I look forward to our talk at the library next month, on Sept. 18.

I think you’re addressing the issue using a much broader scope than we did in the acknowledgments of the book. We’re coming at it from two different places, and we both believe we’re right. I won’t let that difference change the way I feel about you. This is not a book about the library, the foundation, library-foundation relations, or the transition of the library from private to federal hands. The purpose is simply to put Nixon tape transcripts that are particularly important and insightful on the public record in one place. The book is an extension of the work I began nearly a decade ago when I started digitizing the tapes.

At the time Tim was appointed to be the federal director of the Nixon library, I remember thinking how unexpected, unanticipated, and unforeseen – all valid synonyms, I think – his appointment was. I knew only what the public knew. You have much deeper insights into that time than I did, or do today. I was a young guy, a graduate student on an 11k academic year stipend laboring in the dimly lit basement carrels of a 100 year old flood-prone building at the beginning of an unknown journey with the tapes. I had a sense that I was embarking on something bigger than myself, and when the history department secretary started handing me phone messages from places like Henry Kissinger’s office I realized I was doing just that.

Soon I started getting asked my opinion or how much I planned to editorialize my transcripts. I remember thinking privately “what can I possibly say that is of greater importance than what’s on the tapes?” Should the tour guide – ever? – try to become more important than the destination? I certainly didn’t make these tapes, and I don’t have a past to defend or seek credit for, so why editorialize? I have tried to stick pretty close to that m.o. since, and I think that comes through in the book and my website. Too many historians, reaching a certain plateau in their careers, seem to think that what they have to say about history is more important than the events themselves. It’s hardly a new problem; it could have been Thucydides who set us down this path.

Luke said...

(Part deux)

I also remember the exact moment that I first thought it was serendipitous that Tim had been appointed director. It was December 2, 2008, the second Chron 5 tapes release (“5.2” in my shorthand). Tim’s views towards Nixon were undocumented, at least publicly. But that was not of primary importance to me anyway. The release of 198 hours of tapes was, and it was then that I realized how lucky I was – as someone whose research depended on fresh tapes releases – that a former director of the Miller Center Presidential Recordings Project had become director of the Nixon library. I was underwhelmed by the July 2007 initial Chron 5 (“5.1”) release of 11.5 hours of tapes, though the release of textual records was more impressive. But the December 2008 release of tapes confirmed that Tim – someone not only versed in the tapes, but a bona fide presidential recordings expert – would ensure a reasonable release timetable for the remainder of the tapes. My selection of the Nixon tapes as my field of study nearly four years prior was not for naught. New tapes were on the way! There was hope.

I try not to take myself too seriously. I make mistakes. I reflect on my past words and actions, and I try to treat people the way I would like to be treated. I generally take my own advice and do not comment like this, but I did not want to be disrespectful and ignore the ill will that I’ve unintentionally caused. If anyone would like to continue this discussion, an offer you politely declined, I am pretty easy to look up. I could have a chance one day to write about some of the other issues you are right to bring up, but this book – narrowly focused on the tapes, and co-authored no less – was not the place to do that.

MK said...

I am one of the "original Nixon tapes archivists.” As someone who is on friendly terms with you, Tim, Luke, and many others engaged in Nixon issues, I found your account interesting. Thanks also for the signal boost, John. And thanks for engaging with me at my own blog during 2010-2011.

Real time, virtual oral history, on view online! I enjoyed trying to unravel some of the complicated Nixonara issues that way.

As to The Nixon Tapes book by Douglas Brinkley and Luke Nichter, thAy seemingly list names of people with whom they worked or had contact that advanced their studies as they researched the records and sought insights into them. This is an acceptable approach by historians.

The structure of the acknowledgments is such that I don’t see an easy way to detour into issues that are not directly addressed elsewhere in the book. Issues most scholars would find arcane, to say nothing of members of the general public.

I’m thinking of the manner in which the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) traditionally names the first director of a newly established presidential library that it staffs and administers.

Nor, in substance or procedures, the byzantine story of access to the Nixon records, which public records, such as the original iterations of 36 CFR§1275 and the later Kutler Settlement Agreement, don’t begin to convey.

Nor do I see a way for Luke (or Doug) to interject themselves into published acknowledgements and explain their personal journeys. I took serendipity at face value, a word used to convey how the appointment looked to someone outside the federal and foundation process who read the press releases and considered Tim’s prior work.

Luke’s later comments at Episconixonian on Friday provided useful insights for me. And I appreciate learning more about Luke’s background. He is someone with whom I’ve been in contact over the years about the tapes. I found his comments thoughtful.

I appreciate hearing various perspectives, for reasons those who know me well surely will understand.

Fr. John said...

Thanks for your thoughtful comments, MK. My argument is merely that there was nothing serendipitous about Tim's choice as Nixon library director. His selection was fitting and logical, which is all the authors needed to say. That they were surprised is a different issue.

bibliotechie said...

The correct term is providential.

The Inside Baseball and politics of the Nixon records, NARA, and the Library could fill a volume in of themselves, but does not fit the scope of a book acknowledgment.

On the other hand as a librarian mentioned in a few book acknowledgments, there are authors who used to check with us down to the order of names to thank so no one would get offended, and another author who only got two of the five of our names right!

Fr. John said...

I could probably have lived with providential! Many thanks.

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