They could have kept the new Richard M. Nixon presidential library closed to all but a few pre-approved researchers, and in the process deny access to many serious scholars. But it would have been wrong.
The former President and administrators at the Nixon Library apparently reached that proper conclusion. The library, due to open next year in Yorba Linda, will now be open to all scholars, regardless of their viewpoints.
Because the building that houses the Nixon records was privately funded, a library official earlier had said access to the records would be strictly invitational. Who could be expected to be shut out of the Nixon library? According to one official, the name Bob Woodward, one of the investigative reporters who uncovered the Watergate scandal, came to mind. And, of course, that also meant anyone else not invited would have been kept out.
In their turnabout, Nixon library officials are continuing an important tradition set by officials of other presidential libraries. Each of the eight existing libraries devoted to the papers and memorabilia of 20th-Century Presidents contains as full and accessible a record of White House service as the perceived requirements of national security allow.
The full documentary record of the Nixon presidency, embracing about 44 million pages and 4,000 hours of tape recordings, has been housed since Nixon's resignation in 1974 in Alexandria, Va., under the control of the National Archives. The Yorba Linda library will contain photocopies of only some of these original records.
Nevertheless, scholars were vocal in their opposition to the "we-decide-who-gets-in" policy. "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, a Nixon biographer. "And what an Administration did is important to everyone."
To their credit, Nixon and library officials apparently thought again about the exclusionary approach, and changed it. A presidential library, by definition and by precedent, should provide as full and accurate a record of the White House years as possible. Now the papers inside remain, in effect, the property of the American people, all of whom should be able to examine the history of a presidency.