Thursday, February 3, 2011

Public Museum, Private Interests

Writing at an archivists' forum about the reorganization of the National Archives, historian and former Nixon Project archivist Maarja Krusten reads the tea leaves at The Episconixonian:
John Taylor doesn't sound optimistic about [Nixon library director] Tim Naftali getting his Watergate exhibit up. He wrote at his blog yesterday that "So far, the new exhibit at the federal Nixon library has evidently been blocked by friends and former White House colleagues of [Fred] Malek and [Dwight] Chapin who now control Nixon's foundation."
Despite the considerable pressures on Naftali, I actually do feel guardedly optimistic about his chances. I also feel rueful that NARA official Sharon Fawcett and I saddled him with the task of interpreting Watergate and Watergate-related activities at a presidential library where the affiliated private foundation is now run or influenced by some who were directly involved. Knowing what Naftali originally planned to include in the exhibit, I and others will be studying it carefully when it finally does open, to find out what hidden interests have permitted taxpayers to see in a federally run museum.


J.C. Marrero said...

The irony is that Nixon's record begs for context, not excuses. Yet, his friends who insist on excuses will delay RN from ever getting a fair re-evaluation.

I remember, not too long ago, the release of some of Harry Truman's private notes containing unfortunate comments about American Jews. But this has rightly not diminished his reputation as Israel's true friend. No fair person would call HST an anti-Semite based on isolated scriblings.

This is where Nixon gets a rough deal. Thanks to the tapes, his private language trumps examination of his actual record.

For his Library, perhaps there is an opportunity here, a via media.

RN Library might consider displaying all the nasty stuff in physical proximity to the pertinent positive side, so visitors can draw their own conclusions.

Along the taped comments about Jews (which in my opinion is the worst of the bad), the Library might show the actions he took during the Yom Kippur war and highlight the quote from Begin saying that Israel was in debt to three US presidents: Truman (recognition); Nixon (Yom Kippur) and Carter (Camp David).

To judge Nixon on his language, without taking into account his actions in October 1973, is like judging Lincoln on his lukewarm speeches about slavery from 1858 without then giving him credit for the Emancipation Proclamation.

Nixon is no Lincoln (no one is), but he should be judged with the same yardstick as Lincoln, Truman, Kennedy and all other presidents.

Don't fight the facts, but give 'em more facts to consider.

Fr. John said...

Well said, Juan.

MK said...

Sorry to be late joining the conversation, it's a big day (as in the big 60) so I've been celebrating. Might get a post up too although celebrating milestones isn’t the same with sis not physically present any longer. . . .

I agree that context matters. I'm not so sure that Nixon's more outrageous comments are what historians will focus on, as opposed to reporters. When I was at NARA, the reporters came in rather like a herd, asking for "where's the good stuff." They look for what sells newspapers or these days what garners page views. Historians aren't like that. The good ones focus on what happened and why, good and bad both.

Granted, I had voted for RN. But my big takeaway after listening to thousands of hours of the tapes, the portions now released and the portions not released, was not of a man who occasionally disparaged people. Instead, I came away with a very strong sense of the burdens of the presidency and how isolating it can be in the White House. And most of all, how difficult it is to work without peers. A president outranks everyone around him. Few other people work that way. We have colleagues who can be sounding boards for us. And support networks. Not so a president, as far as being able to turn to peers. He’s dealing with at will employees to a large extent. And he can’t share his concens with his friends, who don’t hold clearances and don’t have “a need to know.” The Oval Office (or the hideway EOB office) came to seem like a lonely place in some ways.

Sure, RN was an introvert and quite reserved. But even an extrovert, a person who thrived on contact, such as Bill Clinton, suffered to some extent from isolation. Look at how Clinton reportedly would call up people late at night sometimes. He thrived on contact and brainstorming, but even he was limited in whom he could reach out to. Even socially. It wasn't as if he could just hop in a car and quietly go see buddies whenever he wanted.

Finally, it's important to keep in mind that we NARA archivists were required by law to focus on early disclosure of the "abuse of governmental power" material. Fair or not, that's what we had to do. In government, it's got to be about statutory compliance, not what one or another person wants. You set aside personal preferences. Totally. That meant there was a segregated portion of information, textual and tapes, that focused on the worst that RN did. Even so, from the start, during Fred Graboske's tenure, we marked exculpatory as well as inculpatory material. That is, if it was a topic investigated during the investigations, and we encountered information that showed RN had a chance to take the low road but took the high road instead, we marked that, too.