YORBA LINDA, California (Reuters) - Nearly 40 years after President Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace because of the Watergate scandal, the debate over how his legacy should be defined seems as vibrant as ever - at Nixon’s presidential library, at least.
The Nixon library, which opened in 1990 in Yorba Linda, about 40 miles southeast of Los Angeles, has become the focus of a behind-the-scenes tussle over how the story of the only person to resign from the U.S. presidency should be told.
It pits Nixon loyalists who want the library to do more to portray the 37th president as a great leader with a range of domestic and foreign accomplishments, against historians and others who say that the library - as a symbol of U.S. history and education - has a duty to also provide an unvarnished, and unflattering, lesson on Nixon’s downfall.
A key issue is whether the Nixon Foundation, which is run by former aides to the president and Nixon family members and is raising $25 million to renovate the library, is trying to delay the appointment of a new library director by the National Archives so the renovation can be done without interference from those not loyal to Nixon.
The Nixon library has been without a director for more than two years. The last director, Timothy Naftali, resigned shortly after installing a Watergate exhibit that detailed Nixon’s role in trying to cover up his administration’s involvement in the burglary of Democratic Party offices in the Watergate complex in Washington.
Members of the Nixon Foundation vehemently objected to the exhibit, and several boycotted its opening in 2011. The other exhibits at the library are reverential toward Nixon.
The foundation, which is run by a board of directors led by former Nixon aide Ron Walker, rejects the notion that it has tried to stall the appointment of a new library director.
Some Nixon historians aren’t convinced. They include Stanley Kutler, who successfully sued the National Archives to force the release of White House audio tapes of Nixon and his aides discussing Watergate. Kutler calls the situation at the Nixon library “troubling.”
The tension at the Nixon library reflects how the memories of Watergate, and its impact on Americans’ trust in the presidency, remain bitter and unresolved for some.
It also is a reminder of the tensions that can develop over presidential libraries between library foundations - which typically are staffed by loyalists who largely fund and build the libraries and seek to cast their president in a positive light - and historians and other outsiders who want a non-partisan portrayal that includes details on the president’s worst moments.
Bill Clinton faced some criticism after the opening of his presidential library in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 2004 because of how it portrayed his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky and his impeachment. The library’s exhibit lumps the scandal with other controversies in a section dedicated to the “politics of persecution.”
At George W. Bush’s new presidential library in Dallas, Texas, the controversy over Bush’s decision to invade Iraq because it allegedly had weapons of mass destruction is portrayed in a way that aims to justify the decision.
Visitors can play a game in an interactive exhibit called “Decision Points Theater,” where they must decide whether to invade Iraq. If they choose not to invade, a video image of Bush appears to explain why the invasion was the right thing to do.
The exhibit has been ridiculed by critics of the Bush administration.
Some historians see such efforts to shape the memory of a president as not surprising, but unfortunate.
“It’s a serious problem,” said H.W. Brands, a presidential historian. “The foundations want to operate museums. They don’t want to operate libraries.” So the libraries become “like a ... campaign.”
The National Archives, based in Washington, is responsible for running all 13 presidential libraries, which span the administrations from Herbert Hoover to Bush.
But the archives fund only the salaries and day-to-costs of operating the libraries. The private foundations that support the libraries raise the money to build the facilities and fund exhibits.
The Nixon Foundation’s board includes Nixon’s daughters, Tricia Nixon Cox and Julie Nixon Eisenhower, and Nixon’s brother, Edward Nixon. The foundation president is Sandy Quinn, who worked on Nixon’s unsuccessful campaign for California governor in 1962.
That was two years after Nixon, then Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president, lost the presidential election to John Kennedy. In one of the great political comebacks in U.S. political history, Nixon was elected president in 1968.
Quinn says the new exhibits planned by the Nixon Foundation will include a deeper look at several of Nixon’s achievements, including his role in creating the Environmental Protection Agency and his ending of the draft by returning the U.S. military to an all-volunteer army.
Fred Malek, a former Nixon aide in charge of the fundraising, said: “It really is time to look at some of Richard Nixon’s accomplishments.”
Malek’s sentiments reflect those of many Nixon loyalists who were not happy with the Watergate exhibit that Naftali installed at the library in Yorba Linda, where the late president was born 101 years ago.
The foundation has no official veto power over library appointments by the National Archives, but it must be closely consulted by the Archives and has offices at the library. Because the foundation is the sole provider of renovation funds, Kutler and other historians and critics say this makes the archives wary of upsetting foundation members.
Kutler said he was told by Archives officials that a new library director had not been appointed because of a dearth of good candidates.
“I’m sorry, I’ve been around a long time,” Kutler said. “It’s hard to believe they can’t get a good candidate.”
Susan Donius, Director of the Office of Presidential Libraries at the National Archives, has been acting director of the Nixon library since Naftali’s resignation, from her office across the country in Maryland.
Donius said the Archives is using a recruitment firm to help in the search for a new director at the Nixon library. She declined to say why it has taken so long to find a new director and referred questions to David Ferriero, the archivist of the United States. Ferriero declined to comment.
Jon Wiener, a history professor at the University of California-Irvine, said the Archives’ long delay in appointing a new director in Yorba Linda “suggests an inability of the Archives and the foundation to agree on a new candidate.”
Quinn, the Nixon Foundation’s president, said that “it’s absolute nonsense that we are holding up or blocking the appointment of a new director. We are anxious for a new director.”
Naftali, the library’s former director, said he left the library because he believed his work was done there once the Watergate exhibit was in place. He said he expected someone to replace him soon after he left to foster a culture of non-partisanship at the library.
“It’s much easier for a foundation to renovate a presidential museum if you don’t have a strong director in place, and a piece of cake if you have no director at all,” said Naftali, now director of the Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Archives at New York University.
Naftali added that presidential libraries “tend to be shrines unless people inside and outside the National Archives bring pressure to make them nonpartisan. My concern is that the National Archives has not hired a director and its ability to counter-balance the Nixon Foundation is undermined by the fact that there is no director at Yorba Linda after nearly two and half years.”
Wiener, the UC-Irvine history professor, said: “It appears that in the absence of a new director, the Nixon Foundation, staffed and funded by Nixon loyalists, is asserting itself again at Yorba Linda.”
Editing by David Lindsey