Thursday, September 23, 2010

Styx And Stones

Rows and rows of carefully numbered and labeled boxes enclose the complex and far-reaching historical legacy of Richard Nixon and his presidency -- and now, finally, they're filling shelves near his birthplace in Yorba Linda, at the federal Nixon library.

The library opened as a nongovernmental institution, without any White House materials, in 1990. Beginning in 1994, the year Nixon died, his last chief of staff, Kathy O'Connor, and I spent 13 years trying to get the records home. We worked with the National Archives and Justice Department, scholars who were skeptical of our motives, friendly Nixon family members, hostile ones who shot down our first attempt in 1996-7, Nixon foundation board members and Watergate-era operatives who never understood why we were doing it in the first place, and finally blue-chip lobbyists who got about $1 million to knock the right heads together on Capitol Hill.

The handover finally occurred in May 2007, though the records, which made the journey from College Park, Maryland to California in 12 thundering semis, weren't ensconced in the library's new archives addition until this summer, after Kathy and I had left. So this afternoon the library's director, Tim Naftali, graciously gave us the cook's tour of his gleaming new historical digs.

Tim's steward of about 40 million pages of paper records, half of them processed and ready for researchers (comprising most of the really vital documents). Only the famous White House tapes remain in Washington, though before long, Tim told us, their content will be on line. For now, it was a treat to see five scholars hard at work late in the afternoon in the reading room, studying one of the richest collections in presidential history.

The library also now houses thousands of precious gifts of state. Some of the most beautiful pieces -- paintings, sculpture, jewelry, clothing, and more -- are on display in a world-class exhibit, "Treasures From the Vault," which is open through mid-January.

Our longtime former colleague Olivia Anastasiadis, the library's curator, organized the show -- as she did our mid-1990s exhibit "Rockin' The White House: Four Decades Of Presidents And Popular Music." It included videos of White House performances from the Kennedy to the Clinton administrations, all narrated by MTV's former VJ Kennedy (no relation), who was lined up by my current St. John's School colleague Noah McMahon.

Our "Rockin'" poster featured a photo of Tricia Nixon smiling stiffly as hirsute Mark Volman of the Turtles whispered in her ear. Exhibit and poster designer Eric Guard called it "Barbie goes to hell." Not that he's complaining, but getting the Nixon library launched must sometimes have seemed to be a Stygian slog to Tim Naftali, who's faced challenges that are unprecedented in the history of presidential libraries. And yet as he begins his fifth year as director, we were proud to see all he's accomplished -- so far.

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