Monday, February 28, 2011

Nixon Library, Momentarily Redeemed

Take this, Stanley Kutler! In his critique of Bill Clinton's library, columnist Dave Gibson holds up Richard Nixon's as the gold standard of historical objectivity:

One of the exhibits deals with Clinton’s impeachment, which the library claims was purely political. Part of the permanent display claims: "The impeachment battle was not about the Constitution or the rule of law, but was instead a quest for power that the president's opponents could not win at the ballot box."

The truth is, Bill Clinton lied under oath to protect himself from a woman accusing him of sexual harassment. The investigation ended with his impeachment and the surrender of his law license… Period.

Historians have ranked Bill Clinton last, behind President Nixon on "moral-authority."

Nixon resigned in disgrace and later opened a library which presents a candid look at the facts about the Watergate scandal. Nothing is hidden, nothing is spun. Visitors to the Nixon Presidential Library are given the opportunity to draw their own conclusions.

The canny Nixonian blogger would just let that pleasing assertion lie (so to speak). But as Nixon's ex-chief of staff, having overseen and edited all the exhibits at the Nixon library when they were being written, designed, and constructed by contractors and assistants during 1988-90, I can tell you that we spun Watergate harder than a Whirpool on steroids. Our talking points were exactly the same as the Clinton library's: The president's opponents used the scandal for political payback.

As with all good spin, ours embodied some truth. Impeachment is always a political act. Just ask Andrew Johnson. While our Watergate gallery was never popular with journalists and historians, critics such as David Greenberg tried and failed to identify errors.

The problems were matters of thoroughness as well as tone. After Nixon died in 1994 and we decided that his privately operated library should be part of the National Archives, it was obvious to the feds and me (I was then running the library) that the exhibit had to go, if for reasons of common sense alone. In museum exhibits, polemics work just like in newspaper columns like Gibson's and blogs like mine. If you agree, you're satisfied; if you disagree, you're offended; and if you're open-minded, you're inclined to be suspicious that you're not getting the whole story.

That why in 2006, at my suggestion National Archives official Sharon Fawcett assigned the Nixon library's first federal director, historian Tim Naftali, to create a new Watergate exhibit that would (using Dave Gibson's words, ironically enough) give visitors the opportunity to draw their own conclusions about modern political history's worst scandal. Nixon's White House aides, some of them personally involved, resisted it, just as Clinton spurned a neutral narrative about his troubles.

It took the Reagan library until this year to uncover the Iran-contra scandal, which occurred 24 years ago. Thirty-eight years after Nixon's resignation, Naftali's Watergate installation is now underway. Perhaps he should invite Gibson to the ribbon cutting -- along with his NARA colleagues in Little Rock and elsewhere who might learn from his experience, warts, scars, and all. Deficit permitting, hazardous duty pay may even be in order.

1 comment:

MK said...

Fascinating post, John. As you saw earlier, I linked to it at the archivists' forum. I'm glad to see you linked to it at Tenured Radical under the Reagan post. I submitted a comment there as well, waiting to see if it clears the mod queue! I put up one post at Nixonara about her blog post and will be putting up another on Saturday.