Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace Foundation officials learned in 1995 of anti-Semitic letters to the former president from Elmer H. Bobst, whose widow has donated millions of dollars to build a think tank in his name, and decided even so to proceed with the project, the foundation's executive director said Monday.
And during much of the time in between, the letters created a private rift between the Nixon Foundation and its subsidiary Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom, which was expected to win a permanent home as a result of the Bobst offer. The center has instead sharply repudiated the anti-Semitic comments and cut ties to the Bobst money.
Bobst's anti-Semitic correspondence with Nixon came to public light only last week after an emergency meeting by the board of directors of the Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom.
The Nixon Foundation has since placed the project on hold and will likely make a final decision in two to three weeks, said John Taylor, executive director of the foundation.
News of the anti-Semitic correspondence came as a shock to the Jewish community, and the temporary halt in the Bobst-funded project has been praised as wise by Jewish leaders.
However, interviews with foundation and center officials on Monday indicate that a lengthy debate occurred about the significance of the letters--one of which refers to "malicious" Jews who have "troubled the world from the very beginning."
"We must bear in mind that the majority of people in this country are anti-Jewish," Bobst declared in a Sept. 16, 1972, telephone call transcribed by Nixon's secretary. "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."
Taylor said a colleague who was doing research on the White House papers brought the Bobst correspondence to his attention in the fall of 1995, and he immediately shared them with the Nixon family and foundation board members.
After two months of talks, the foundation opted to move forward with the $5.8-million Bobst donation, although that position will now be reconsidered, Taylor said.
"The decision was reached . . . that while the statements in the letters could be neither condoned nor justified, they did not represent the totality of the life of the president's and his daughters' friend, Elmer Bobst," Taylor said.
Bobst was the former Warner-Lambert Corp. chairman and a friend and foreign-policy advisor to Nixon, who delivered the eulogy at Bobst's funeral in 1978. Bobst had advised Nixon to go to China in the 1960s and inspired Nixon to become involved with anti-cancer efforts in 1971, Taylor said.
"We felt that we would be able to say to the public, 'Here is the full Elmer Bobst,' " Taylor said. "The decision was made to go ahead with the gift."
The donation, announced in March 1995, was meant to construct and fully endow the Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom, a think tank created by Nixon just months before his death. It has been operating without its own facility while the foundation searched for funding.
Instead, the gift drove a wedge of disagreement between the center and its parent foundation once the Bobst letters surfaced.
As soon as Taylor brought the letters to the attention of think tank officials in early 1996, "there was immediately a very strong sentiment that the Nixon Center did not want to be involved with the Bobst Institute," Dmitri K. Simes, Nixon Center president and spokesman, said Monday from Washington.
That opposition from center officials and board members to the anti-Semitic correspondence, combined with recent negotiations that could place the Yorba Linda presidential library under the control of the National Archives, forced the issue to a head, officials said.
The center's executive committee had decided by last December that it wanted nothing to do with the Bobst name, Simes said. Representatives of both groups reached an "amicable" decision that the Bobst Institute would function under the auspices of the Nixon Foundation, and that the Nixon Center would remain separate from the Bobst group, Simes said.
Taylor said it also was becoming clear that the Nixon Center had taken firm root in Washington soil, and that it would be illogical to headquarter it in Yorba Linda.
Plans were made to turn the Bobst Institute into a separate think tank from the center, one that, at the urging of Bobst's widow, Mamdouha Bobst, would focus on "international, multicultural issues," Taylor said.
However, the issue was again unearthed and thrust into the public arena when news of a plan for the National Archives to take over the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace recently surfaced, Simes and Taylor said. If this were to take place, the Nixon Foundation, parent of the center, would move its headquarters to the Bobst building, since the National Archives would operate the rest of the Yorba Linda complex.
"It would have been very difficult to say in good conscience that we would have nothing to do with the Bobst Institute. Even though we would be governed out of the Bobst Institute [building], we would have conferences there, and we would have fellows there," Simes said. "The only thing we wouldn't do was have our name on it. We wanted genuinely to have nothing to do with the institute."
While the issue is far from resolved, it may spell the end of the Nixon Center's affiliation with its parent Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace Foundation, Simes said.
"It's not the end of the world," Simes said of the possibility of a break. "Sometimes in life, the best solution to disagreement is to build some distance."
Simes hastened to add that no break has occurred and stressed his hopes that the organizations will remain linked.
The center's board passed a resolution Thursday asking that the Bobst Institute issue be resolved, and seeking changes to the foundation's bylaws that would give the center a stronger voice and change the way the foundation makes decisions, Simes said.
Simes expressed optimism that the foundation will reject the money and that the other issues will be resolved.
"Our hope is that preferably there will be a solution which will allow us to stay in the foundation," he said. "I think that President Nixon felt that he wanted the center to be a part of his foundation and he also wanted the center to be programatically independent."
As for the foundation, Taylor said the issue has come at a crucial time for an organization already struggling with its image.
"Our institution now finds itself at a crossroads," Taylor said. "We are being asked--not only by the Nixon Center, but by ourselves--to talk about the kind of foundation that we're going to be."