|Rockwell's idealized Nixon|
At home, in many respects Nixon governed to the left of Barack Obama. His domestic and monetary policies -- establishing the Environmental Protection Agency, enacting wage and price controls, desegregating public schools in the deep south, adopting an anti-drug policy that stressed treating addicts, and trying twice to enact national health insurance reform -- neither impressed his more progressive contemporaries nor endeared him to his fellow conservatives. Only later, during the Reagan years, did he begin to attract plaudits from scholars ranging from Joan Hoff to Noam Chomsky, who each called Nixon the last liberal president. When he resigned, his biographer Stephen Ambrose wrote in the 1980s, "we lost more than we gained."
Nixon's centrist policies, draped in the disgrace of Watergate, made him an outlier among today's more conservative Republicans, who routinely exclude him from the honor roll of GOP presidents at their nominating conventions. And yet pundits still repeat, and Republican candidates usually obey, his famous dictum about running to the right in the primaries and back to the center in the general election. Party elites and their dutiful cable TV and talk radio amanuenses make our country look more divided than it is. Polls still show that we are a pragmatic, center-leaning, essentially Nixonian people. One recent example is a New York Times article revealing that Republicans who have opposed gay marriage for decades are now relieved that the Supreme Court may save them from having to continue to do so so stridently, since up to 60% of the American people now favor it. (Nixon predicted it would be legal by 2000.)
If being outlived by the salience of his governing principles is a measure of a leader's greatness, then Nixon's smudged legacy could be in for a few coats of polish. It may yet be possible for a tough-minded foreign policy realist and domestic pragmatist to figure out how to be nominated and win -- someone in Nixon's mold such the late Sen. Henry Jackson (D-WA), Nixon's first presidential mentor, Dwight Eisenhower, or the subject of Richard Norton Smith's new book, the late Nelson Rockefeller, New York governor and then vice president under Nixon's equally pragmatic successor, Gerald Ford. Should that moment come, Nixon's political and policy playbooks will be waiting.
|Three heavyweights, and I|
For whatever reason he bestowed it, Nixon's heavyweight merit badge was a matter of its taking one to know one. I knew him only as a former president. I was a research assistant from 1979-84 and his chief of staff until 1990, when he sent me to the library. (His family was surprised and hurt to learn that he also made me one of two co-executors of his estate.) While the stakes and dimensions of his work were smaller in retirement, his horizons never narrowed. After leaving office, Nixon wrote nine books and hundreds of memoranda to his successors. Rather than giving 100 speeches a year for money and getting rich, he gave one or two for free, always before prestigious audiences, labored for weeks over the content, delivered them without notes, and had them transcribed and distributed to the media, policymakers, and friends. Whatever he did, his laser-beam of a brain was always fixed on influencing his successors' policies, especially relations with the Russians and Chinese.
|Deng and Nixon, Beijing, 1989|
Undertaking frequent trips to Beijing, Moscow, and dozens of other countries, he did his best to facilitate communications between their leaders and the incumbent president, usually briefing the White House privately instead of calling attention to himself with public pronouncements (which was not always easy, because Nixon loved being paid attention to, as long as he was being taken seriously). During his visit to Beijing in October 1989, a few months after the regime's Saddam Hussein-like slaughter of its own people in Tienanmen Square, I watched as Nixon put what remained of his reputation at risk to keep U.S.-China relations from going off the skids. In 1991, after we went to the Soviet Union, he goaded the George H. W. Bush administration into paying more attention to Boris Yeltsin as a potential successor to the last of the communist bosses, Mikhail Gorbachev.
No matter what his critics said during those post-presidential years, he wasn't battling for his place in history, and he knew it. Nixon's historical legacy is inescapably subject to what scholars have found and will find in the vast record he left behind, including millions of pages of letters and memoranda and thousands of hours of tapes recorded in the White House between 1971-73. Because of the tapes, which if fully transcribed would fill hundreds of thousands of pages, he is probably the most copiously documented leader in human history. As almost everyone knows, he often sounds awful on the tapes. Sometimes his bigotry, anger, and desire for revenge are to blame, other times his painfully introverted temperament, still others his tendency to tease or provoke aides by suggesting outlandish schemes or maneuvers, some of which he wanted carried out, others not. He's frequently not at his best in his dictated memoranda, either.
And yet the sheer intensity of his focus on the substance of policy, especially internationally, can't be denied, nor can his impact on politics, society, and culture. What other president has been the subject both of a Grateful Dead radio commercial and a grand opera performed at the Met? All in all, one can argue that he accomplished more under adverse political conditions (the Democrats held Congress for his entire five and a half years) than any other modern president.
So when the centennial of his birth rolled around beginning in January 2013, you would think that his presidential library and foundation would have used the opportunity for a comprehensive look at Nixon's consequential times and legacy -- conferences, publications, speakers series, you name it. Nixon's foundation is well funded, with an endowment that should still stand at around $40 million based on its value when I left as executive director in 2009. As it planned a fitting Nixon centennial, the foundation had the capacity to throw open its doors to his friends and critics, to his policy partners and political operatives, and to scholars and journalists for a thoroughgoing assessment of his presidency.
|Christopher and Andrea, Beijing, 2013|
The capacity, but as yet, not the will. Instead of any meaningful programming, the Nixon foundation held a cocktail reception and dinner for his colleagues and staffers at a Washington, D.C. hotel, sent Tricia and Ed Cox's son, Christopher, and his then-wife, Andrea Catsimatidis, to China with a retinue of ex-aides and library docents, and installed another museum exhibit about his life. For the single-minded, endlessly fascinating, paradigm-shifting architect of the age of Nixon, this was pretty much the extent of his centennial year.
These days, the sleepy Nixon library's caretakers are Nixon's private foundation and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). The foundation's top executive, named last year, is former CEO of an investment firm and of a wholesale wine distributor. The new federal director, Michael Ellzey, is a former executive director of the Golden Gate Park Concourse Authority in San Francisco, where he oversaw the renovation of the park's arts and cultural district. Most recently, he ran the Great Park, a controversial municipal project in Orange County, California. According to recent reports, Great Park auditors give Ellzey credit for cleaning up some of the mess he inherited when he came on board in 2008. As the federal Nixon director, Ellzey is paid by taxpayers and reports to the archivist of the U.S., David Ferriero. But his appointment was blessed by Nixon's family and operatives.
It's worrisome when a political operative with a personal stake in what the public sees is helping pay for the exhibit cases and the fees of the consultants and scribes who will compose the museum's new narrative. In his new book, The Last Campaign: How Presidents Rewrite History, Run For Posterity, And Enshrine Their Legacies, Anthony J. Clark explores how money influences content at all 13 presidential libraries. Soon after Ellzey's appointment, Clark told the Orange County Register:
To have appointed someone with no experience or training as an archivist or a historian creates serious questions as to how the Nixon library will fulfill its duties. To have chosen a director without such credentials but apparently with the strong support of the private Nixon Foundation is very troubling and raises additional concerns.Ellzey's predecessor, Tim Naftali, whom I'd recommended to the archivist of the U.S. for appointment as the Nixon library's first federal director, had the opposite problem. A respected Cold War scholar and expert on secret presidential tapes, his academic credentials were impeccable. Nixon's Watergate-era factotums, who seized control of Nixon's foundation after I left in 2009, despised him -- proof, as far as I'm concerned, that he was the right choice.
I suggested that NARA name an independent-minded scholar and tapes aficionado because I had a conception of the Nixon library's potential as a focal point for reassessing Nixon's life and times that, as it turned out, only a few colleagues and friends ended up sharing. After 37 died in April 1994, and I had overseen his funeral, I had what amounted to an epiphany. It didn't matter what we, his advocates, believed and said about him. The massive record Nixon had left couldn't be denied. It would smother all sycophancy. Since we couldn't keep the records closed, we obviously had to get them open as quickly as possible so historians could see Nixon at his worst and best and finally go to work on a truly balanced and complete view of this more complex of presidents.
And yet from the perspective of the scholarly community, I probably appeared to be an unreliable advocate of an all-in view of Richard Nixon. As his aide and library director, I spent the better of two decades arguing with journalists and historians.
When author Raymond Bonner accused Nixon of giving President Ferdinand Marcos the green light to declare martial law in the Philippines in 1972, for instance, I demonstrated that there was no proof, compelling Bonner to print a grudging footnote in the paperback edition of his book.
I also got letters defending Nixon into the Times, Wall Street Journal, Time, and other publications. Writing unctuously to anchorman Brian Williams, I persuaded NBC News to retract an erroneous Vietnam story. I protested ABC's 1989 film adaption of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's The Final Days and Oliver Stone's 1995 movie "Nixon." I chided scholar Stanley Kutler (who died this month) for publishing an unreliable Watergate tape transcript, Rick Perlstein for slipshod use of a secondary source, Don Fulsom for claiming that Nixon had beaten his wife and conducted an affair with his best friend, Bebe Rebozo, and Robert Dallek for accusing Nixon's men of being behind a 1960 break-in at John F. Kennedy's doctor's office. Operative Jeb Magruder's claims notwithstanding, I argued that Nixon hadn't known about the Watergate break-in in advance. I tried to argue away Nixon's antisemitic comments and defended him and Henry Kissinger when a newly-released White House tape made it appear that they would have tolerated the Soviet Union massacring all its Jews.
Because of all that, and more, I earned the reputation of being blind to Nixon's faults. In November 1999, OC Weekly published an article containing the tortured explanations it imagined "chief Nixon apologist John Taylor" would manufacture if asked about Nixon's most outrageous taped comments. One example from the Weekly's full-page article, now framed on the wall of my study: "Nixon says: 'You know what happened to the Romans? The last six Roman emperors were fags.' What John Taylor should say: 'The president was a learned man, and like all learned men, he knew that the first definition of "fag" in the dictionary is someone who works himself to exhaustion. The president had great admiration for hard workers.'" A considerable and unexpected blessing is that OC Weekly and I are experiencing what one of its veteran investigative reporters, R. Scott Moxley, called a detente.
While I usually based my arguments on the facts as I knew them, I regret the times I questioned people's motives without evidence, especially the archival professionals working faithfully with Nixon's records at NARA. On occasion, my assertions were rendered inoperative, as Nixon press secretary Ron Ziegler might've said. In an article in the American Spectator, I insisted that Nixon had never used an obscenity also known as the first word of the title of an unreleased Rolling Stones documentary. It was true he'd never said it in thousands of hours of conversation with me. But when newly released White House tape showed that he had used the word in the White House, I made sure to include it in a subsequent piece, requiring the Spectator's copy editors to expend what probably amounted to a month's supply of expletive-obscuring hyphens.
I also made a point to come clean, so to speak, in my 2014 novel, Jackson Place, in which a fictional 37 refuses to resign. When an aide (a fictional Ron Ziegler, as a matter of fact) suggests that "Nixon" solve a delicate PR problem by going to church, "Nixon" says, "So that I can sit there while some sanctimonious c--------- preaches at me about reconciliation and peace and justice and all that crap?"
|What might have been|
So while I kept tilting at Nixon's critics, I became an equally persistent advocate of opening records. Under my watch at the private Nixon library, we launched an archive of pre-presidential materials that won some praise from scholars. In negotiations that began soon after Nixon died, I participated, as co-executor of his estate, in an agreement with NARA and the late Stanley Kutler, who had sued the agency, that was designed to enable the opening of all of Nixon's non-classified tapes by 2000. (It took NARA until 2013.) While some who were understandably cynical about Nixon and Nixonites were accusing us of covering up, we were actually preserving and protecting. The Supreme Court had ordered NARA to return to Nixon, and later his estate, all papers and hundreds of hours of tapes related to his political, as opposed to policy-making, work as president. The court said such records were his private property thanks to his constitutional right to private political associations. When we had the right to seal them forever and even destroy them, in the late 1990s I vowed that we would preserve them. When we handed the library over to the government in 2007, we deeded the whole collection to NARA.
As library director Tim Naftali was starting work on his new Watergate exhibit, I gave him access to the briefing books Nixon had used to prepare for his 1977 TV interviews with British personality David Frost, which gave Tim insights into how 37 had prepared to talk about the scandal for the first time as well as structure the massive Watergate sections of his 1978 memoir. In a January 2015 Facebook exchange with historian David Greenberg, Tim wrote, "Although complicated at the time, and a friendship now, my relationship with John from the start in 2006 produced agreements that led to more archival releases."
As I've already written, after we handed library operations over to NARA and Tim in 2007, our relationship suffered as a consequence of him taking such decisive steps to show that there was a new sheriff in town and of me having trouble letting go after running the library for 17 years. During the two years I continued as foundation chief, we had a series of wearying procedural skirmishes over consultation on programming, space, and budgets. Our disagreements never became public, and as Tim made clear in his comment to Greenberg, they didn't keep us from cooperating.
|Tim Naftali and Kathy O'Connor|
In Kathy's first weeks heading the foundation, while she lost no ground in negotiations with the federal library, she developed a friendlier relationship with Tim than I had managed and began to solve the relatively trivial first world problems that had plagued us. On her watch, prospects began to improve for making the library the focal point for lively debate and inquiry about Nixon's life and times that Kathy and I had worked toward for years and that, we believe, Nixon himself would have wanted.
But that Nixon library wasn't to be. The late Rep. Charlie Wilson (D-TX) is famous for helping arm the Afghan resistance to the Soviet Union in the 1980s. After Moscow withdrew, Congress ignored his pleas to rebuild the shattered country, which soon became al-Qaeda's home base. "These things happened," Wilson said about defeating the Soviets. "They were glorious, and they changed the world. And then we f----- up the end game." And so it was with Kathy and me.
Remember that we only knew Nixon as a former president, Kathy beginning in 1980, I a year before. It's true we hadn't been with the old man in the White House when it really counted, as some of his family members and White House aides would grumble. By the same token, we hadn't organized any dirty tricks, ordered any burglaries, participated in any coverups, counted the number of men and women with Jewish surnames in any federal agencies, tried to have the taxes of any political enemies audited, had any anti-Nixon demonstrators roughed up, or sicced the FBI on any journalists.
Members of Nixon's White House cohort sometimes seemed more focused on themselves and their personal interests than on Nixon's legacy. Some were hungry to be in charge, settle scores, or receive the payoff they felt they'd been denied because of Watergate. A few of Nixon's lower-level associates had been maneuvering for years to get close to the library safe. One asked in on our security business. Another wanted to be hired to invest our endowment. Still another, with the support of some in Nixon's family, pressured us to contribute to a secret fund to help pay the personal expenses of a pro-Nixon scholar.
As a post-presidential johnny-come-lately, which is what Nixon son-in-law Ed Cox dubbed me in an angry e-mail to Tricia's uncle Ed Nixon, I was naturally less concerned with the agendas of resentful former operatives than with the old man's peacemaking legacy and ongoing elder statesmanship. When running the Nixon foundation and after helping found the Nixon Center, Kathy and I and our colleagues cultivated excellent institutional relationships with such high-level Nixon policy partners as Henry Kissinger, Jim Schlesinger, George Shultz, and Brent Scowcroft. Seeing Nixon and them at work, and coming to appreciate the liveliness of his pragmatic policy and political principles, made it easy for us to think that his reputation would withstand Watergate. We even permitted ourselves to believe that Nixon's historical standing would rebound as historians weighed the good against the bad and the ugly in the massive record we had helped open and bring to his library in Yorba Linda. If it took 50 years, or even more, that was okay. It wasn't so much about us, we had realized. It was about Nixon and what history would decide.
|Patron saint of Haldeman foundation|
Here's where the Charlie Wilson analogy comes into play. Haldeman's loyalists wouldn't have been squatting so securely on their nine acres of Nixon purity in Yorba Linda without insider help. Their apparently unwitting accomplice, Orange County printer Kris Elftmann, was an institutional creature of Kathy's and my own making. On the advice of the late Mary Muth, a longtime supporter of Richard Nixon and the Nixon foundation, we had cultivated Elftmann for membership on the foundation board and soon elevated him to chairman.
In early 2009, after I said I was quitting after 19 years as executive director, the foundation's executive committee offered Kathy two years as my replacement. Though she was reluctant, two longtime board members, including former foundation chairman Don Bendetti, persuaded her to accept the offer. But Elftmann had another plan. When the full board met, he proposed making Kathy a one-year caretaker and called for a national search for the best-possible candidate. He and the foundation hired headhunters at Korn/Ferry to perform the search. Korn/Ferry is popular in Nixon circles because former Nixon advance man and National Park Service director Ron Walker is one of its former executives. (Walker will also be remembered for telling muckraking Nixon biographer Anthony Summers that he had enlisted off-duty police officers and firefighters to rough up anti-Nixon demonstrators and for bragging about having protest signs ripped from free citizens' hands.) In a conversation during the summer of 2009 at La Casa Pacifica, the Nixons' old home in San Clemente, Walker told me he was keeping close tabs on the search and promised to pass on any concerns I had. (Kathy had already opted out.) When Korn/Ferry presented their candidates that fall, Elftmann proposed giving the job to Walker. The Nixon board agreed.
To attract the quality candidates that Elftmann had said he was looking for, he and the board had changed the job title from executive director to president and increased the salary. An additional possible motive for these enhancements emerged in the fall of 2010. First Walker stepped up to foundation chairman. Then according to a board member who was present, Elftmann, the volunteer chairman, had his own name put forward for president. It had all the hallmarks of a Putin-Medvedev job swap. Unfortunately for Elftmann, it didn't go down that way. He had helped all the president's men to seize power in Yorba Linda. Now that they were in charge, they essentially showed him the door.
|With Kathy in Hangzhou, 1993|
The year before, Elftmann had leveraged a small group of foundation trustees associated with the Washington-based Nixon Center against Kathy. During that abysmal spring and summer, she was repaid for 30 years of confidential service to Nixon and his family with acts of savagery and sadism. Worst of all was when her antagonists pressured her to sign a multimillion-dollar lease for new Nixon Center offices in Washington and embroiled her in a Kafkaesque nightmare of bogus job reviews when she refused to do so without consulting the foundation board.
You read that right. Kathy's unyielding insistence on taking the Nixon Center's proposed lease contract to the Nixon foundation board, which was legally responsible for Nixon Center finances, was actually construed as evidence of poor performance. Imagine the irony of someone affiliated with a Nixon operation being punished for insisting on fiduciary probity. During those hellish months, Bendetti and our other erstwhile friends on the board fretted and stewed but did nothing to stop the abuse. Finally Kathy and I acted to extract her.
Elftmann must have assumed that the Beltway insiders at the Nixon Center, including former NATO Ambassador Bob Ellsworth, who had helped Elftmann batter Kathy over the Center's lease, had enough clout in Yorba Linda to make him foundation president. But they'd never had much influence on the board, and now they had none. Walker and the board spurned Elftmann and gave the job to one of their own. After he lost, a board member told me, Elftmann quit and stormed out, later muttering darkly, and ironically, to a reporter about the foundation's questionable management practices.
Within a year, the Haldeman tribe had cut the Nixon Center loose, too. News reports suggest that it got millions from the foundation endowment for agreeing to stop using Nixon's name. Now called the Center for the National Interest, it will be lucky to outlive its current management and contributors. I suspect Nixon would have been gravely disappointed. He had said explicitly that he wanted his foundation to operate a nonpartisan center in Washington that would address ongoing foreign policy challenges. He understood that any president or his heirs and aides could get rich friends to pay for a high-tech museum celebrating themselves and their achievements for the sake of a few thousand weekly tourist visits. Nixon always thought bigger than that. As a disgraced former president, he never stopped wanting to have what he called "an impact on the course of events." He hoped for no less when it came to the foundation bearing his name.
After settling scores with the Nixon Center, the foundation's operatives were in a position to turn their full fire on Tim Naftali, the federal library director. Their goal was no less than the final coverup: Blocking the warts-and-all Watergate exhibit that the archivist of the U.S. had assigned him to install and that the Nixon foundation, when Kathy and I were running it, had agreed was the price of admission to the federal library system. This time, all their spirit-of-Watergate moves were impotent. Withstanding one of the most systematic assaults ever mounted against a public historian, Naftali thwarted them at every turn, successfully installing the exhibit in March 2011.
Haldeman's loyalists will tell you their enemy was Naftali. But they also shrink from the uncompromising judgement of history -- about Nixon, but also about themselves. Otherwise they wouldn't have tried to keep Naftali from using their own oral history interviews, called on him and NARA to be kinder to Bob Haldeman, and tried to narrow the definition of Watergate in the new museum exhibit so that the principal villains would have appeared to be their bete noire Dean, political counselor Chuck Colson (never a Haldeman insider), and, of course and always, Nixon himself. Otherwise a heavyweight's centennial wouldn't have been lighter than air. Otherwise they wouldn't have held out for a successor to Naftali whose resume is empty of curatorial, archival, or public policy substance. Otherwise, to paraphrase Nixon's so-called last press conference in 1962, they'd invite one lonely professor onto the campus from time to time, just to report what people were thinking, feeling, and saying about Richard Nixon in arenas other than panel discussions and cocktail parties for former aides.
|Not in Yorba Linda|
|I'm doubting Thomas will return|