Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Fingers In The Watergate Dike

In 2005, as we prepared to hand the Nixon library over to the federal government, I suggested to Archivist of the United States Allen Weinstein that he consider a brilliant Cold War scholar, Tim Naftali, as our first federal director.

For one thing, Naftali (shown here giving Richard Nixon's last chief of staff, Kathy O'Connor, a tour of the library's breathtaking "Treasures from the Vault" exhibition) had done state-of-the-art work with secret Kennedy and Johnson tapes while at the University of Virginia's Miller Center. Tapes would be something of which the Nixon library would have an abundance.

Weinstein said that the same thought had occurred to him and gave Naftali the director's job. Within months, I'd essentially given him a less enviable one: Watergate expert-in-chief.

As part of our negotiations with NARA, the Nixon foundation had agreed to redo our Watergate gallery. In the spring of 2006, with Naftali on board, I told Weinstein's deputy, Sharon Fawcett, that it would make more sense for NARA to design the new exhibit itself. My view was and remains that while Nixon's reputation as a peacemaker and domestic policy pragmatist will outweigh the burden of Watergate, the scandal's story has to be fully told and understood before any balanced assessment of his vast legacy is possible.

And who better to do it than the government's new historian-director? Fawcett quickly and enthusiastically agreed, and in May 2006 I handed our work product over to Tim. After conducting extensive interviews with key Watergate players -- one of whom, Dwight Chapin (right), makes an especially startling claim about Nixon's personal involvement in 1972 campaign dirty tricks -- Naftali had the exhibit ready to install this year, only to come under attack from White House friends of Chapin who now control Nixon's foundation.

Former NARA tapes expert Maarja Krusten reviews the matter here and poses an apt if direct question:

By agreeing that the federal government would put up a replacement exhibit after it established a NARA administered library at Yorba Linda in 2007, the Foundation made a commitment to the National Archives. What is unclear is the extent to which it considered that NARA operates under a statute that requires it to reveal “the full truth” about “governmental abuses of power."

Well, I certainly did -- and remember, we passed the torch of curatorial responsibility from the private to the federal Nixon library in 2006. Again, we trusted that Nixon's reputation would withstand even the deluge of Watergate. NARA's statutory responsibility notwithstanding, those who really care about his legacy don't help matters by trying to keep their finger in the dike. But, of course, there are other reputations at stake besides Nixon's.


MK said...

Fascinating. Thanks so much for posting this very useful information about the Watergate exhibit, Allen Weinstein, Sharon Fawcett and Tim Naftali. I may write up a follow up post! BTW, there 's a small error, most likely caused by your having Archives II at College Park, MD on your mind. The University of Maryland adjoins NARA's property in College Park and some former NARA people teach there. However, the Miller Center is associated with the University of Virginia, not the University of Maryland. I'm sure you know that but was thinking AII when you wrote this. I know, I know--I do that sort of thing ALL the time.

MK said...

Oops, I mean I'm sure you were, not was. I'm eating dinner and posting, a combination that never works well and doesn't lend itself to taking the time to proofread!

Fr. John said...

Good catch, MK. Thanks. Please watch for e-mail.