In a simmering controversy over the stewardship of the Richard M. Nixon Library & Birthplace, advocates for the former president’s feuding daughters sought to frame the dispute Friday in sharply different terms--and to lay some of the bad blood to backroom politicking within the Nixon Foundation itself.
One board member said Friday that legal challenges over a multimillion-dollar bequest to the foundation are part of a power grab by library executives and an attempt to bypass the foundation’s 24-member board of directors.
The board member, former Nixon aide Ken Khachigian, said several board members opposed taking legal action over the bequest by Nixon chum Bebe Rebozo, but were overruled by the foundation’s executive committee.
Those lawsuits have pushed what was a private dispute between Tricia Nixon Cox and Julie Nixon Eisenhower into courtrooms in Orange County and Miami.
“You’ve got a couple folks who are employed by the foundation who are trying to accumulate more power,” Khachigian said. “A minimum of three of us felt this action should not be taken. The full board was not consulted, and I think it should have been. I think this is inappropriate and unfortunate.”
While the roots of the dispute grow from a philosophical difference between the sisters over how to preserve their father’s legacy, other personality conflicts brew. Cox has been adamant about maintaining control over the Rebozo bequest because, according to a source familiar with foundation affairs, Rebozo once told her that he did not want his money in the hands of library executive director John H. Taylor.
Rebozo’s will specifies that Cox, Eisenhower and Robert H. Abplanalp must determine how the foundation spends the bequest.
The source added that the sisters’ estrangement was fueled by Taylor and Dimitri K. Simes, president of the Nixon
Center in Washington, D.C., which is also supported by the foundation.
“Taylor and Simes have worked very hard to separate the two,” he said. “That’s part of their controlling the library, and there came a point when they succeeded. They want control, total control. That’s what’s going on here.”
Taylor dismissed that analysis as the fruits of bitterness over a 1997 reorganization of the foundation board in which he sided with Eisenhower in establishing a 24-member independent body rather than a family-controlled committee.
Letters written in February by Cox and Eisenhower--both board members--paint the dispute in stark and challenging terms.
“It is sad that my father’s library has been used to create a public controversy about the Nixon family, which only harms my father’s legacy,” Cox wrote to the board, condemning the lawsuits as “senseless,” “unwise and meritless.”
She wrote, “I am deeply concerned that Bebe’s wishes and will be faithfully implemented....My father would expect no less.”
Eisenhower was equally direct a day later in a reply to fellow board member Abplanalp.
“It pains me to have a dispute with you and Tricia, but my father’s legacy is at stake,” Eisenhower wrote.
At issue is a bequest that could be worth as much as $20 million--rather than the $12-million estimate provided earlier to The Times. Part of the problem in sizing the bequest is that much of it is in real estate holdings whose values cannot be readily determined, said Nicholas Christin, a Miami lawyer representing the Rebozo trust.
Under terms of the Rebozo will, the Nixon Foundation would receive 65% of the estate, which could be worth $30 million.
Christin said the lawsuits surprised him.
“These were minor differences. I thought we were at the 5-yard line, ready to go in for a touchdown,” he said.
He said the Rebozo trust believes that the Nixon sisters and Abplanalp must decide how the money is spent.
In the court filings, attorneys for the library foundation questioned nearly $1 million paid to three Rebozo trustees from the estate. Christin, though, said there was nothing untoward about the payments, and that the bulk of the estate would have been released to the foundation long ago if the Nixon sisters and Abplanalp could agree on how the money would be managed.
“We’d be happy to distribute when we get the instructions,” Christin said. “The trustees always expected these people would work out agreements.”
Christin noted that the lawsuits could erode the estate with legal bills.
“I think everybody would be far better off without litigation,” Christin said. “It certainly doesn’t reduce costs that they chose to file litigation in Florida and California.”
Although the current dispute revolves around Rebozo’s money, the sisters’ falling out dates back to the months after Nixon’s death, when differences over how to preserve Nixon’s legacy first surfaced. The Rebozo controversy isn’t the first time that split has rocked the foundation.
In 1997, the foundation halted a project to establish an institute at the library named after the late Nixon advisor Elmer Bobst when letters and phone messages surfaced containing anti-Semitic comments by Bobst.
The Nixon Foundation was divided over the issue. Some of those involved, including Cox’s husband Edward Cox, wanted to keep the letters quiet--and keep the money, said Taylor. But the board agreed to turn back a $6-million grant from the Elmer and Mamdouha Bobst Foundation, including $850,000 of $1.5 million it had already accepted. The rest had been spent on plans for the institute. On Friday, one partisan in the current dispute said that the Nixon Foundation still has not returned the money, which Taylor acknowledged.
“There’s always been a strong feeling that the Bobst Foundation ought to have some funds returned to it,” he said. “We have members of our board who believe it should be returned. We have members of our board who feel there should be a halfway-point meeting.”
While the drama unfolds behind the scenes, there was little talk of the controversy Friday in Yorba Linda, where the library is based and where Nixon and his wife, Pat Nixon, are buried.
But as word spread among library visitors who hold the Nixon family in high regard, the reigning emotions were surprise and consternation.
“You always hate to see siblings crossed up over anything--especially over money,” said the Rev. Sewell Hall of Atlanta, in town to deliver a series of sermons at the Tustin Church of Christ.
For some, the falling out spoke of a failure in a family that remained solid--at least on the outside--through the turmoil of the Watergate era and the president’s resignation from office.
“That is very discouraging--I hate to hear that,” said Jo Ella Evans, in town for two weeks from Monroe, Ind. “I always thought they were pretty united. They would have had to be to have gone through everything they went through. I wish it wouldn’t be like that.”
Carl Sferrazza Anthony, a Los Angeles-based historian specializing in first ladies, said the Nixon sisters were extremely close as children and that seemed to evolve into a close adult relationship as well.
Eisenhower’s 1986 book about their mother, “Pat Nixon: The Untold Story,” included warm references to Cox and detailed how the two women sought to shore up their father during the dark days of Watergate. Eisenhower also quoted liberally from Tricia’s diary.
“They’d have to be close for Tricia to open her diary,” Anthony said.
Anthony said that Cox is more “politically savvy” than Eisenhower and quicker to take umbrage over attacks on their father’s legacy, even though she has avoided public appearances. Eisenhower, meanwhile, has been a well-regarded ambassador for the Nixon Library, remaining loyal to her father, even as she’s maintained the open-minded perspective of a historian, Anthony said.
“She’s not a ferocious, sink-or-swim person. She’s a very fair, judicious person,” Anthony said. “It’s really impossible for me to imagine Julie ever doing something as rash as instituting a lawsuit.”
Times staff writer John J. Goldman and Times Washington Bureau Chief Doyle McManus contributed to this report.