Critics Question Value of Nixon’s New Library : Public affairs: Screening of materials to be stored and scholars to be admitted is called a reflection of ex-President’s need to exercise control over events.
Even before the Richard M. Nixon presidential library opens, it has sparked controversy among leading scholars: Unlike other libraries, this one will screen the papers to be stored there and also may screen the researchers who study there.
Nixon’s will be the first presidential library without a complete collection of the memos, letters and other documents from a President’s Administration. That is because his original papers are in the custody of the government, and he has chosen to photocopy only what he considers important for his library.
Although library director Hugh Hewitt says every document of any importance will be duplicated and brought to Yorba Linda, scholars wonder what might be left out.
And in a sharp departure from the practice at the eight presidential libraries that are run by the National Archives, scholars and researchers will be evaluated before they are admitted to the library portion of the facility.
Hewitt told The Times that researchers will “obviously, certainly” be screened on the basis of the content and slant of their contemplated work.
“I don’t think we’d ever open the doors to Bob Woodward. He’s not a responsible journalist,” Hewitt said, referring to the Washington Post reporter who teamed with Carl Bernstein to produce Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the Watergate scandal. Hewitt said his judgment was based solely on the 1976 book, “The Final Days,” in which Woodward and Bernstein detailed the last months of Nixon’s Administration. Hewitt said the book was “unsourced gossip.”
The debate in the academic community over the $21-million library-museum springs from the fact that Nixon’s will be the only presidential library in the nation to be operated entirely with private funds. That means that Nixon and those close to him decide how it will be run.
“Who knows what the Nixon people have screened out? As a scholar, I would distrust that system. We’ll never know what’s missing,” said Stanley Kutler, a professor of law and history at the University of Wisconsin who just published a book on Nixon and Watergate, the scandal that in August, 1974, made him the only American President to resign.
“Any scholar would be wary of going to a private library when they could see a full set of the originals in Virginia,” Kutler said, referring to the complete collection of Nixon’s presidential papers, which by law are kept in a government archive in Alexandria, Va. It is open to the public.
Library officials contend that both the street-level museum, which opens July 20, and the underground library, which will open in 1991, will offer an unflinchingly honest and complete account of Nixon’s life, and as such, will be crucial research tools for any bona fide scholar. They say dozens of researchers have already expressed interest in using the library.
“That library is going to contain absolutely everything: favorable, not favorable, Watergate, everything,” said William E. Simon, former Secretary of the Treasury under Nixon and president of the library foundation. “Academics and historians have always hated Nixon. What they’re saying about the library is shibboleth, and it’s not true.”
But skepticism about the library comes not only from Nixon’s critics, but from such renowned presidential scholars as James MacGregor Burns and from Nixon’s supporters, such as Martin Anderson, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s conservative Hoover Institution and a former special assistant to the Nixon White House.
Anderson said that the “only way (the library can) get credibility in the academic world” is to have all of Nixon’s presidential documents and make them available to everyone. Anderson is among those who believe that Nixon’s comeback from ignominy is justified and long overdue, given his achievements in domestic and foreign policy. But he worries that assembling an incomplete archive and imposing restrictions on who may use it will hamper Nixon’s bid for legitimacy.
“The objective use of the (presidential) papers is critical to that process,” said Anderson, who served as Reagan’s economic policy adviser. “Let the gates open. The total story is what’s important and that overshadows all the smaller parts, complete with their mistakes.”
Woodward, who is now the Post’s assistant managing editor for investigations, said the suggestion that he--and possibly others--will be kept out “demonstrates that the library will be part of a continuing cover-up” of Nixon’s history.
“Political neutrality is the essence of maintaining presidential documents,” Woodward said. “To let the tensions and angers of a long-ago era (restrict access) is pathetic and silly. It’s the old enemies-list mentality. That was part of the problem in the first place. You have to deal with your critics.”
Some scholars think that plans to hold Republican fund-raisers at the complex, and to bar similar Democratic functions, will further taint the unbiased, academic reputation to which the facility aspires. (The government-run libraries do not permit political fund-raising.)
Scholars are concerned about another restriction. Unlike other presidential libraries, where anyone may leaf through original documents, students and other members of the public will be admitted to the Nixon library only if its personnel has time left over after helping scholars. Hewitt attributes that policy to the small size of the staff.
Nonetheless, all this has led to an uneasy feeling among key experts that Nixon’s plans could rob the public of any assurance that it will be a fair and complete record of his presidency.
“Only if the scholars can get into the record of an Administration can the public understand why it did what it did,” said Stephen E. Ambrose, who has published two volumes of a Nixon biography and is completing the third. “And what an Administration did is important to everyone.”
A 1974 law, passed to prevent Nixon from destroying documents of his Administration, mandated that all his presidential papers be turned over to the National Archives. The Nixon records--about 44 million pages and 4,000 hours of tape-recordings--are in a warehouse in Alexandria. The archives must keep secret a small percentage that officials say could threaten national security, reveal classified information or constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy. About 5 million pages and a small portion of the tapes have been made public so far, and the archives staff is still reviewing the rest.
David Van Tassel, acting deputy director of the Nixon Presidential Materials Project that houses all the documents and tapes, said the “logistics” of photocopying millions of papers will be “staggering.” Nixon’s people have made no arrangements to do so yet, he said.
With the exception of the Rutherford B. Hayes library in Ohio, which operates on money from the state and from private sources, all eight of the nation’s other presidential libraries are run by the National Archives.
Each of the eight Presidents from Herbert Hoover to Jimmy Carter, except for Nixon, has privately built a library to house his papers and has chosen to deed it to the archives for operation, Brett said. (Reagan’s library in Thousand Oaks, scheduled to open next year, will follow suit.)
Nixon chose not to bestow his library to the archives.
Those close to him say Nixon’s sole motive in choosing to have his library privately run is that he does not to wish to burden taxpayers with the annual multimillion-dollar cost of its maintenance, as other presidential libraries do. It is consistent, they say, with his decision to pay for his own security and to refuse honorariums for speaking engagements.
Walter H. Annenberg, who was Nixon’s ambassador to Great Britain and remains a close friend, said it is “a presumption on the part of the liberal Nixon-haters” to believe that he wanted the library run privately so he could exert control over its contents.
Hewitt, who was a lawyer on Ronald Reagan’s White House staff and helped Nixon research one of his books, said that even though the private funding of the museum and library allows them to be “content non-neutral,” there is no need to slant the 37th President’s image.
“He’s had such a remarkable career, there’s no need to do that. It speaks for itself,” Hewitt said. “The need to maintain the reputation for professional excellence means you cannot cut editorial corners or the outcry from the scholarly community would be intense.”
Skeptics say that the desire to tell the unvarnished story does not jibe with the Richard Nixon they know, the notorious political manipulator and stonewaller who feels that his greatest achievements were unfairly overshadowed by Watergate and still seeks full resurrection in the public eye.
“With Richard Nixon, a key word in his vocabulary is control,” Kutler said. “He must always control things. Nixon is campaigning for the soul of history. It’s his final campaign. Everything is contrived to that end.”
Burns, a political historian from Williams College in Massachusetts, said that Nixon’s history of fighting the disclosure of documents from his Administration--he is still battling the National Archives’ desire to release 150,000 pages of the White House “special files,” the more sensitive, personal papers--demonstrates that Nixon does not want the whole story told.
“He obviously still wants to control the records and prevent public revelations by historians and others who might do him wrong,” Burns said. “The thing is, how are we going to learn from the errors and successes (of past Presidents) if we can’t study the full record of the presidency?”
Herbert Parmet, whose book “Richard Nixon and His America,” is viewed as one of the most sympathetic toward the former chief executive, said he has “no doubt” that Nixon wants to use his library to further rehabilitate his image.
“Anyone who’s been disgraced out of office as he has will naturally turn in the direction of trying to rebuild himself,” said Parmet, a history professor at City University of New York. “When I was writing my book, he tried to stroke me, get on my good side, prove he wasn’t such a bad guy.”
Some experts believe that using the complex for Republican fund-raisers in the evenings will undermine its appearance of fairness. Parmet said such use “compromises (the library) thoroughly and removes it from the realm of scholarly conference.” But Anderson said it doesn’t have to have that effect as long as the library is “run in a scholarly fashion.”
Hewitt defended the partisan use of the facility.
“President Nixon’s always been a Republican, he’s always been partisan, he’s always stood for certain things,” Hewitt said. “It would be far more of a taint to let the premises be used indiscriminately by groups who oppose everything he worked for.”
Hewitt said that although the library won’t contain “every piece of paper” that’s in the government archives in Virginia, it will have the most important “core files,” including every document that Nixon saw or that crossed his desk or the desks of his senior staff and Cabinet members. The library will also have things no one else does, such as Nixon’s unexpurgated diaries, which span the years before, during and after his presidency; papers from his days in Congress and the post-presidential years, and movies that White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman made of Nixon in the White House. Hewitt said it could take a decade to assemble all the archive materials.
A key feature of the museum’s “Watergate Hall” will be an audiotape machine that will play excerpts from three of the most incriminating Watergate tapes: the June, 1972, “smoking gun” tape, in which Nixon agrees to ask the CIA to halt an FBI probe into the Watergate break-in, and two tapes from March, 1973, one being the “hush money” tape, which discussed payoffs to silence Watergate operatives, and another in which White House counsel John Dean warns of a “cancer within, close to the presidency, that is growing.”
Hewitt says “that kind of bluntness with respect to the rough spots” of Nixon’s life “is what people can expect from the library.”
But some leading scholars remain dubious.
Burns speculated that private operation of a presidential library could subtly bias those in charge of its documents.
“A scholar would have to wonder if employees are loyal to the public or to the man the library honors,” he said. “Given the source of their paycheck, there could be a motive to be protective. They wouldn’t be flagrantly biased, but there would be an insidious pressure, with a living President looking over your shoulder.”