Officials of the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace Foundation in Yorba Linda, Calif., have halted preparations for construction of a $6-million building because of a controversy over anti-Semitic writings of its long-deceased namesake, Nixon benefactor Elmer H. Bobst.
The decision on the Bobst Institute followed an emergency meeting here Thursday by the board of directors of the Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom, a Birthplace Foundation subsidiary and think tank whose image and independence the board considers threatened by association with the Bobst name.
The voting members, who included former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, former Secretary of Defense James R. Schlesinger and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called for immediate consultation with the foundation on “problems surrounding creation of the Bobst Institute,” according to center president and spokesman Dimitri K. Simes.
The argument over the Bobst Institute is just one element of an ongoing dispute between Nixon family members and his political supporters over who should control the various institutions that bear the former president’s name.
Center officials also called for a “meaningful restructuring” of the Nixon foundation, which currently gives even big donors on its board of directors no voice in either budget decisions or foundation policies. Nixon family members have agreed in principle to some restructuring, one source said, “but the devil is in the details.”
While the Nixon Center board voiced unanimous preference for continued affiliation with the Nixon foundation, this will depend on ensuring the center’s independence and reaching an agreement on the Bobst Institute, Simes said.
The emergency meeting, chaired by Schlesinger, was attended by 11 of the 17 board members, with three others voting by proxy, Simes said. The only board members absent were Nixon’s daughters, Tricia Cox and Julie Eisenhower, and former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, who had a previous speaking commitment.
One of those attending the meeting who asked not to be identified said the board tried to avoid the appearance of giving an ultimatum to its parent body. “But there will be no Bobst Institute if we stay with the foundation,” he said.
Construction of the institute, a gift to the Nixon Foundation by Bobst’s widow, Mamdouha, was scheduled to start this month on the nine-acre site of the Nixon Library and Birthplace in Yorba Linda. Some preparations were already underway but apparently have been tabled for two or three weeks in the face of what one official called a “profound institutional self-examination” over the Bobst matter. The delay is aimed at permitting negotiations between the Nixon daughters, who committed the foundation to the project, and longtime allies of the late president, who are outraged at the prospect of a forced marriage with Bobst’s name.
In one of a series of “Dear Dick” letters to his friend in the Oval Office--letters that surfaced recently among Nixon papers at the National Archives--Bobst states that “malicious” Jews have “troubled the world from the very beginning.”
“We must bear in mind that the majority of the people in this country are anti-Jewish,” he declared in a Sept. 16, 1972, telephone call transcribed by Nixon’s secretary, Rose Mary Woods. “We don’t permit them to come into our areas if we can help it--we try to keep them out of clubs, etc. Remember, there are a lot of people who do not like them at all.”
There are more communications in that vein.
Ironically, the Nixon who is still honored by both center and foundation officials was known to rail against Jews himself. The Watergate tapes are filled with Nixonian fulminations against a “Jewish cabal” in such federal agencies as the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Internal Revenue Service and “rich Jews” among prominent Democrats who “are stealing in every direction.”
Why are Nixon loyalists now so concerned about Bobst?
“President Nixon said many terrible things, particularly when he felt embattled or emotional, and I do not defend them,” Simes said. “But there is absolutely no evidence that those sentiments ever played a part in either his political appointments or his public policies. You only have to look at the reverence with which he is held in Israel. So we have a public record to weigh against those unfortunate private outbursts. . . .
“Mr. Bobst may well have been just as fair-minded in public life, but we have no comparable public record against which to judge what he wrote. So for many members of the center board, there is a difference. And it is a difference I understand,” Simes said.
While some were willing to accept, if not excuse, Bobst’s sentiments as those of an emotional man in his 80s, others have talked of demanding the return of million-dollar contributions to the Nixon Foundation if the whole Bobst project isn’t scrapped, according to sources close to the controversy.