Monday, January 12, 2015

"Voice From The Past," Erased And Restored

From p. 1 of this morning's "Register"
Quoted in a Jan. 4 article in the Orange County Register, a Richard Nixon-Bob Haldeman operative claimed that the Nixon foundation, which I ran for 19 years beginning in 1990, had no role in naming Tim Naftali as the first federal Nixon library in 2006. Actually, Naftali's was the only name we submitted to the National Archives. NARA loved the idea -- he was a foreign policy scholar and an expert in secret presidential tapes -- and hired him within days of my phone call.

It wasn't the first time someone had written me out of the history of the Nixon wars. In their recently published book of White House tapes, Douglas Brinkley and Luke Nichter tried to erase one of mine by writing that Naftali's Yorba Linda appointment was "serendipitous," as if it had been a rare and wonderful example of immaculate bureaucratic conception.

This week, a more knowledgeable scholar, Anthony J. Clark, author of a forthcoming book about presidential libraries, The Last Campaign: How Presidents Rewrite History, Run for Posterity, and Enshrine Their Legacies, brought the Nixon operative's whopper to the attention of Register political reporter Martin Wisckol, who'd written the Jan. 4 article. Wisckol graciously modified the on-line text and e-mailed me questions for a follow-up column, which appeared today. Here's our complete exchange:

Can you tell me how you became aware of Naftali? I'm told the foundation brought him in to speak in May 2005. Were you involved in that decision or was that your first exposure to him? Also, [operative Ron] Walker told me this morning, "The (Nixon) girls were upset that they were never involved in the selection. I heard it from them." Care to respond to that?

If by "the girls," Walker means Mr. Nixon's daughters, I can't recall precisely whom I talked to among my Nixon foundation colleagues about Tim, but I consulted pretty widely, and people seemed to agree that he was a good fit because of his unique standing as a non-ideological Cold War scholar and an expert on presidential tapes. If Tim and President Nixon had ever had a chance to sit down and talk, I don't think they would have disagreed about very much. He might even have understood why, if his library was to be part of the federal system, it would probably be necessary to have speakers such as John Dean and a more thorough Watergate gallery.

I first met Tim when he and his boss at UVA's Miller Center, Philip Zelikow, later executive director of the Sept. 11 commission, reached out to me in the hope that Mr. Nixon's estate (of which I was co-executor) would enable them to have access to White House tapes that hadn't yet been opened to the public. I visited them in Charlottesville. That would've been in the early 2000s.  

Overall and when all was said and done, was Naftali an asset to the library?

Naftali meets the press
He proved to be indispensable. Tim showed that the library could welcome Nixon critics such as Bob Woodward and John Dean without the world coming to end. He also took on the harrowing assignment of installing the comprehensive Watergate exhibit that was a condition of the agreement whereby the government took over the library. Given the intense pressure placed on him by those now running Nixon's foundation who were outraged by the Dean invitation and wanted to stop the exhibit, I don't know if very many others in his position could have stayed the course and succeeded as he did. President Nixon prized toughness. Tim was tough indeed. Their campaign against a federal director -- ranging from disparaging him personally to enlisting Sen. [Lamar] Alexander to pressure Tim and filing FOIA requests so they could read his e-mails -- may be unprecedented in the history of presidential libraries.

Any regrets in recommending him? 


Was the Watergate exhibited far and unbiased? Were Naftali's efforts to present Nixon overall fair and unbiased?

The exhibit is an unblinking and comprehensive look at a dark chapter in American history and President Nixon's legacy. If the Nixon foundation had worked collegially with him, the exhibit might have ended up with softer corners. Instead, his critics guaranteed that the experts and media would be looking carefully to make sure the exhibit included warts and all, which it does.  

What do you think of Ron Walker and the Nixon daughters who felt that Naftali was unduly harsh and too focused on Nixon's shortcomings?

It was Tim's job to be focused on Nixon's shortcomings, because the archivist of the U.S. and the Nixon foundation agreed that he would have to create a Watergate exhibit. The then-archivist, Allen Weinstein, told Tim he wanted a thorough exhibit, and the government was paying for it.

Some people do continue to insist that Watergate was overblown, even that President Nixon did virtually no wrong. But every fifth grader knows (and I've asked a lot of them!) that Richard Nixon was the only president to resign and that he did so because of Watergate. When students visit the Nixon library, they see the great achievements as well -- China, detente, reorienting the Vietnam War, and President Nixon's pragmatic politics and domestic policies. What message would we send schoolchildren, not to mention the museum's other visitors, by minimizing what they already know is one of the most important events in modern political history?

No, thanks, Mark
The wiser course is to stipulate the tragedy of Watergate while focusing attention on Mr. Nixon's globe-transforming achievements and enduring principles. That's one reason President Nixon and we launched The Nixon Center in 1994. (Sadly, it is no longer allowed to use his name.)

As for the apparent continued attacks against Tim that you mention, it's obviously not just about him. The Nixon foundation successfully scuttled [University of Texas Vietnam scholar Mark Atwood] Lawrence's appointment because it wouldn't brook his criticism of President Nixon, either.

So now both the foundation and federal library are in the hands of chiefs, handpicked or anointed by Mr. Nixon's White House associates, with little apparent background in museum or archival work, academia, or national public policy. The question remains whether Yorba Linda will be a place where President Nixon and his tumultuous times can be explored and understood in all their dimensions or a hermetically-sealed bubble for loyalists. When those of us who knew and served him pass from the scene, the tapes and other records stored at the Nixon library will speak more loudly than our advocacy or self-defensiveness. The reason we brought the library into the federal system to begin with was so we could be part of that conversation, not muffle our ears.