Thursday, August 14, 2014

Serendipity Doo-Dah

It was a Cinderella story.

We dedicated the old, private Nixon library, where I served as director beginning in 1990, on an oppressively hot day that July. We had four presidents at the dedication ceremony, including Richard Nixon and the incumbent, George H. W. Bush. We threw a glittering fairy tale ball at the Century Plaza in Los Angeles with an open bar, attended by the noblest political hacks from every corner of the kingdom.

We called what we had constructed in Yorba Linda, around Nixon's humble birthplace, a presidential library. It had gleaming new galleries, shiny terrazzo floors, exquisite bathrooms, and a stately reading room for scholars.  It cost a then-princely sum of $25 million. The epic buildings and grounds definitely looked presidential. But the shoe didn't fit, because we were a stepchild, reaching for a birthright to which we weren't entitled.

It wasn't hard to see why. Within our heavily fortified walls, in all our 13 acres, there wasn't a presidential document to be found -- not a memo, a letter, a scribble, a tape, or even a tape gap. Someone claimed we had secret UFO records, which would've been useful if it were true. But Nixon's White House records, including the infamous secret tapes, were all back in Washington.

We opened an archive with pre-presidential records in 1991, but it didn't convince scholars that our hearts were pure. Besides, the phone book didn't say we were the Nixon pre-presidential library. As at all new libraries, our museum put the best face on our man's legacy. But unlike our better-heeled cousins, we couldn't say that scholars and the public could walk around the corner and get the straight story of Nixon's presidency in the records. To see those, people had to visit a National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) facility in Alexandria, Virginia or, later, College Park, Maryland.

We buried Mr. Nixon on the grounds in 1994, beside his first lady, who had died the year before. In the years that followed, as his co-executor I helped settle two pieces of federal litigation that had kept the Yorba Linda stepchild from joining the libraries which, beginning with Herbert Hoover's, are all run by NARA. One lawsuit had to do with access to Nixon's tapes, the other compensation for Congress's taking of all his White House records.

That done at last, we notified Uncle Sam that we were prepared to receive callers. But he was a reluctant suitor. For several years, the phone never rang on Saturday night. If you think I'm about to stretch the metaphor to include a dowry, you're right. We finally had to pay a lobbyist with ample Democratic bona fides $1 million to get legislation written in the House permitting NARA to ship Nixon's records out of Washington to Yorba Linda and paying for an archives wing for the documents, gifts, and tapes.

Along the way we withstood Nixon's fractious family (which torpedoed my first effort to federalize the library in 1996-97 because they thought, wrongly as it turned out, that there would be a bigger pot of gold if we kept fighting in court) and political hacks hanging around at court who were mad that we were paying big bucks to fancy Democratic lobbyists instead of good Nixon cloth coat lobbyists.

Finally, it all came together. By the spring of 2006, our courtship was on the brink of consummation. The glass slipper was tickling our toes. All we needed was a federal director -- somebody who was, frankly, not I. Archivist Allen Weinstein and his deputy, Sharon Fawcett, asked me for names. I gave them just one: Timothy Naftali, a Cold War scholar who had run a groundbreaking presidential tapes project at the University of Virginia's Miller Center. Within days, they'd offered him the job. In an article announcing the Naftali appointment, the LA Times' Christopher Goffard wrote:
John H. Taylor, executive director of the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace Foundation, called Naftali "an independent-minded straight shooter" and "an ideal choice" for the job.

Taylor said Naftali's work with presidential recordings was particularly relevant, because the National Archives plans to transfer nearly 4,000 hours of Nixon's presidential tapes to the library, many of which are difficult to hear.
Tim meets the press
After we handed the library over to the feds in 2007, I remained as Nixon foundation chief. Though friends now, Tim and I had our ups and downs. When I complained about Tim to Allen Weinstein, he reminded me that Naftali had been my idea. When I complained to Naftali, he reminded me that I'd asked him to take the job. Weinstein compared us to squabbling brothers. Our skirmishes were trivial compared to the systematic although impotent assault that the John Dean-hating disciples of disgraced Nixon aide Bob Haldeman mounted against Naftali to try to stop his new Watergate exhibit, which opened in 2011.

I left the library in 2009, pleased, at least, that it was safely in federal hands. I never expected anyone to celebrate my years in Yorba Linda. Tim and I both are here to say that if you want to make friends, don't be director of Nixon's library. My able successor at the Nixon foundation, former Nixon chief of staff Kathy O'Connor, who also ran afoul of the good old Haldeman boys, can sympathize.

And yet I write today to battle for my footnote in Nixon library history. Two weeks ago, from their publicist at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, I received a complimentary copy of The Nixon Tapes by Douglas Brinkley and Luke A. Nichter. Their 758-page book of transcripts is a vital addition to the Nixon bibliography. In the acknowledgements, the authors mention Naftali's work with presidential recordings at the Miller Center and then write:
[S]o it was serendipitous that the National Archives selected him in 2006 to be the first director of the federalized Richard Nixon Presidential Library...
Serendipity is chance, accident, or coincidence. Naftali's appointment was none of these, and saying it was not only obscures my role, incidental though it may have been, but also suggests that the then-archivist of the U.S., no mean scholar himself, had blundered into a smart pick, like Percy Spencer's accidental discovery of the microwave oven.

I actually thought that this was a small thing among gentlemen of the realm. I have a passing acquaintance with Brinkley. He reached out to me when it seemed the Nixon estate might be in the position to help with access to the tapes. I've also known Nichter for several years. I admired his efforts to make the Nixon tapes more broadly available to the public. We had lunch a few months ago. Last week in Washington, he graciously acknowledged the NARA archivists who faithfully cared for and processed the Nixon records while absorbing undeserved, politically inspired criticism, including from those of us on the Nixon side.

So I wrote them both an e-mail praising their work but saying that I felt as though I'd been written out of the story. I asked that they alter the wording in subsequent editions. I didn't suggest how that might be done, but as I look at their phantasmagorical sentence, it seems to me that just changing "serendipitous" to "appropriate" would do it.

Brinkley didn't reply, but Nichter did. Rejecting my claim, he plunged his lance in deep. "This is the first book of its kind," he wrote. "We expected that one of the criticisms we would get is that we didn't do enough in some shape or form. That often happens to those who are trying to start an entirely new conversation." So I'm not only out of line with my request. I'm nipping predictably at the heels of courageous visionaries. It's after midnight, anyway. I'll just head back to my pumpkin.