Richard Nixon wove many a tangled web in his lengthy and controversial career. One of his unintended legacies has the National Archives in the uncomfortable position of keeping research material secret. It's a federal agency that should be dedicated to preserving the nation's history for the public.
The centerpiece of a dispute between the National Archives and Nixon's alma mater, Whittier College, is the availability of audiotapes.
After Nixon became President in 1969, Whittier was chosen as the site of his presidential library. A Whittier professor interviewed relatives, friends and neighbors concerning the years 1913 to 1946 (a period ending just before the start of his political career) for an oral history. A foundation was established to raise funds for the library but found the task impossible after Nixon resigned the presidency in disgrace due to the Watergate scandal, in which an entirely different set of tapes played a key role.
As the foundation folded, it deeded the tapes to some future Nixon presidential library, and the National Archives took them for safekeeping. They now reside in the archives' branch in the Orange County community of Laguna Niguel. Much other Nixon material there has been available to the public, but not the Whittier tapes.
Although the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace opened in Yorba Linda four years ago, the National Archives contended that it was not a real presidential library because it did not control the presidential papers and was not administered by the archives. Whittier College contends the tapes should be made public.
At the very least, the Nixon library should have copies provided by the archives. As Stephen Ambrose's masterful three-volume biography of Nixon demonstrated, historians have no dearth of materials on the man, before, during and after his presidency. Yet every bit helps. Insights and remembrances from those who knew him form parts of the mosaic of history.
At Nixon's funeral in Yorba Linda in April, President Clinton urged that his predecessor be judged on "his entire life and career." The National Archives should help historians in furthering that goal.