Friday, February 4, 2011

Presidents' droit du seigneur

Richard Nixon was famous for collecting "historic firsts." His friendly rival Ronald Reagan has beat him to the last one. While Yorba Linda continues to wallow in Watergate, the Reagan library, 20 years after it opened in Simi Valley, California, has finally uncovered the scandal that buffeted Reagan's presidency in 1986-87:

Before the [about-to-be-unveiled] renovation, the Reagan library made scant mention of the Iran-Contra scandal, the secret U.S. sale of arms to Iran despite an embargo. The sales were an attempt to induce Iranian-backed guerrillas in Lebanon to free American hostages, but some of the proceeds went to fund anti-communist Contra rebels in Nicaragua.

The new library devotes a section to Iran-Contra, including a recording of Reagan's 1987 speech in which he admits responsibility for the affair.

The long-awaited gust of fresh air in Simi Valley is in the way of all things presidential librarian. Because their millions give them leverage over the National Archives, ex-presidents' friends and families get to see hagiographic museums when libraries first open. It's one price federal archivists pays to get state-of-the-art storage facilities which enable them to preserve White House records for scholars and researchers.

The museums usually last 5-10 years before being renovated or replaced, when objectivity begins to intrude. With the federal Nixon library's new Watergate exhibit evidently still tied up by the Watergate-era Nixon friends who now control his foundation, have the Reaganites outdone the Nixonites in historical transparency?

No and yes. When we opened the Nixon library in 1990, it was an exception to the rule for at least two reasons. The first is that it was privately rather than publicly run. The second is that it had a substantial exhibit on Watergate, the ugliest episode in Richard Nixon's career. That set it apart from the public Johnson and Reagan libraries, whose first-generation museums neglected Vietnam and Iran-contra.

In Yorba Linda, we knew we'd be pilloried for overlooking Watergate. Our solution was a large, polemical exhibit which attracted considerable criticism from reporters and historians over the years, though none managed to find an error. (Trying to do so, historian David Greenberg committed a couple of his own.) In 2006, in my 17th year as Nixon library director and in the midst of our second attempt to turn it over to the taxpayers, NARA's presidential libraries chief, Sharon Fawcett, and I agreed that the new federal director, distinguished Cold War historian Tim Naftali, was the best person to plan and install the second-generation Watergate exhibit.

But while a pro-Nixon Watergate exhibit was one thing, the no-holds-barred rendition Naftali envisioned (based on extensive interviews with Nixon men such as Dwight Chapin, shown here) was quite another. The public learned last August of Nixon operatives' attempts to derail the new exhibit. One can also imagine secret maneuvers. Were other presidential foundations perhaps given the impression that Naftali and Fawcett were trying to take away presidents' traditional droit du seigneur when it comes to their precious reputations? Just think of a Nixon hand clutching a glass of chardonnay and whispering in the ear of someone from the George W. Bush foundation, "If they get their way on Watergate, you'll have to open your museum with a torture exhibit."

But that was never the point. At 21 years old, the Nixon library has reached the age of historical maturity. Besides, no matter how defensive some of his men may be about their own reputations when it comes to the full range of Watergate-related activities, the reputation of the Nixonite who actually thought of going to China can withstand telling the full story. And now Ronald Reagan has beat him to it.


J.C. Marrero said...

Interesting metaphor. Would the American public be in the place of the maiden here?

Fr. John said...


Anonymous said...

Typical of a Nixonian to smear LBJ, but the Johnson Library never hid the truth about Vietnam.

Fr. John said...

Dear Anonymous: Thanks for your comment. Not my intention or wish to smear anyone. My impression is that when the Johnson library first opened, its exhibit on Vietnam was tiny, considerably out of proportion to the war's impact on Johnson's era and presidency. I'll check my assumption and edit my post as needed. Thanks again. JT

MK said...

In an article in the Dallas Morning News, Harry Middleton, the former director of the Johnson Presidential Library explained, “it wasn’t until 1982, when historians and other outside experts helped redesign the museum, that it fully explored how the [Vietnam] war split the country.” The reporter noted that “the second effort, made after LBJ died, was more objective than the first, Mr. Middleton said, convincing him that an advisory panel should have been used at the start.”

As a former employee of the National Archives' Office of Presidential Libraries, I see no smear here in John Taylor's post.