Beginning from my first days as Richard Nixon's chief of staff from 1984-90, his lack of enthusiasm about his presidential library presented a considerable problem. It was his least favorite post-presidential subject. In his private discourse, he would sometimes actually modify the word "library" with one of those famous deleted expletives.
While generous with his own funds, he refused to raise library money beyond appearing at a few fat cat events and the grand opening in July 1990. Even then, he would dematerialize a few minutes before Bill Simon or Maury Stans, his cabinet members-turned-Nixon library volunteers, made the pitch. One time after another, I was the guy who got to tell Simon, Stans, and others that when it came to the library, Nixon was unable to add anything to his schedule. They'd sometimes wonder why they were raising $23 million for a disgraced president who actually made them feel a little dirty for even mentioning it.
Getting him to focus on architecture and exhibits was rough sledding, too. He realized that any ex-president could get his rich friends to build a museum for him, hold reunions and cocktail parties for his family members and operatives, and say whatever they wanted about the ups and downs of his presidency (such as, in his case, Watergate). As a lifelong reader, Nixon understood that his historical reputation would reside not between museum walls but book covers. That's why, after I became director of the newly opened library in 1990, he reluctantly acquiesced in my plan for an archive of his pre-presidential records. It's also why his last chief of staff, Kathy O'Connor, and I devoted so much energy to getting his White House records home to Yorba Linda by making the private library part of the National Archives, a mission we completed in 2007. We did so despite considerable resistance from Nixon family members and factotums alike.
What would Nixon have thought about the federal library? His feelings would have been mixed, of course. His love of history notwithstanding, he didn't especially love historians. What did he love? Being relevant. Making a difference. His eyes only began to sparkle in conversations about his library when George Argyros (later foundation chairman and U.S. ambassador to Spain), Soviet expert Dimitri Simes, and I asked him to bless our plans for a affiliated foreign policy center that would apply his principles of enlightened national interest to America's challenges in the post-Cold War world.
He agreed immediately. That work, he told us, was worth doing. That work, he said, would have an impact on the course of events. When we were planning the Nixon library, it was hard to get him to drive 50 blocks to midtown Manhattan to attend a meeting. He came all the way from New Jersey to Yorba Linda to announce the creation of the Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom in January 1994, on the 25th anniversary of his first Inaugural.
When he died that April, some questioned whether a brand-new Nixon organization in Washington could succeed without him. The momentum his enthusiasm had given us helped us persevere, and in November 1994 the Nixon Center (its shortened name, eventually) opened its doors. In the years since, with Simes at the helm, its experts did exactly what we promised Nixon they'd do: Analyze current events through a Nixonian prism. As recently as last year, when Nixon's White House tapes reminded a new generation of Americans of the less worthy aspects of his legacy and temperament and the Nixon White House operatives now controlling his foundation waxed silent in response, the Nixon Center called attention to the continued relevance of his robust, carefully shaken mixture of Wilsonian idealism and Kissingerian realpolitik.
Nixon would have been proud of its work. Too bad the Nixon Center apparently isn't proud of him. In fact, it just threw its first and greatest patron over the side. At a fundraiser last night, it announced that it was in receipt of "new resources" and also proclaimed its new name: "Nixon Who?", aka "The Center for the National Interest." The National Interest is a foreign policy journal founded in the 1980s by neocon godfather Irving Kristol. Ironically, the Center Formerly Known As Nixon acquired it several years ago and turned it into the voice of principled, Nixonian realism. His kind of thinking became unfashionable in the Republican Party years ago. Who would've thought the foreign policy establishment, not to mention his friends, would finally abandon Nixon as well?
Photos: Nixon in Moscow in 1989 with Dimitri Simes (John H. Taylor photo) and in his suburban New Jersey study