Nixon's Tapes, Papers Might Come Home if Congress Lifts a Restriction

Times Staff Writer

The Nixon Library could finally become, well, a library.

Nearly 30 years after Congress barred Richard M. Nixon from keeping his official papers -- and infamous tapes -- when he quit the presidency, a new legislative compromise could set the stage for moving the historic collection from the National Archives in Maryland to the privately run Nixon Library & Birthplace in Yorba Linda.

Landing the collection would be a boon for the Nixon Library, which, without access to its namesake's papers, has struggled for legitimacy as a research center on a par with other presidential repositories.

"This is a vitally important, indispensable first step toward housing the president's papers," said John Taylor, Nixon Library executive director. "We are eager for that process to go forward. The records will not move until the National Archives is satisfied there is a facility here that is up to standards ... There are many discussions ahead."

When the facility opened in 1990 it was mocked as a library that had no books, and in recent years administrators have raised operating funds by renting out space for weddings, corporate dinners and a funeral.

Nixon scholars have long feared that placing the collection under the authority of the Nixon Library could chill independent scholarship on his presidency. But the new measure specifies that the collection must remain under the authority of the National Archives and open to scholars and other researchers.

The measure rescinds a provision of a 1974 law that required that Nixon's White House files remain in the Washington, D.C., area for safekeeping -- the only such limitation placed on a former president's records. The compromise is attached to a transportation appropriations bill the House and Senate are expected to approve, possibly next week.

After the restriction is lifted, officials for the National Archives and the Nixon Library can begin negotiations over the possible move, which both sides said they consider inevitable.

Susan Cooper, spokeswoman for the National Archives, said the change could allow the Nixon collection to be housed in a presidential library like those holding the papers of every other president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Former President Clinton's library is under construction.

"We will start a dialogue with the Nixon Library about what the next steps ought to be," Cooper said.

There is no timetable for the discussions, and the Nixon Library would likely need renovations to meet National Archives standards for access and protection of the materials.

The center, built along Yorba Linda Boulevard west of Imperial Highway and encompassing Nixon's childhood home, already is in the midst of a 47,000-square-foot expansion that will nearly double the facility's size when it opens next year.

The lifting of the restriction grew out of efforts by Nixon's younger daughter, Julie Nixon Eisenhower, and her husband, historian and presidential grandson David Eisenhower, who have long sought to add academic heft to the library, which is now largely a museum devoted to a sympathetic look at the Nixon presidency.

Debate over the direction of the library led to a public rift last year between Eisenhower and her sister, Tricia Cox, over how a $20-million bequest by Nixon friend Charles "Bebe" Rebozo would be spent. The legal dispute exposed a power struggle over the future of the library, with Cox pushing for family control and Eisenhower seeking a more independent research center.

Details of the out-of-court settlement remain private, but the move to add the Nixon files to the library indicates that Eisenhower's vision has prevailed.

The Nixon collection consists of about 46 million pages of documents -- only 7 million pages have been processed and made public so far -- about 350,000 photographs, 4,000 videotapes, 2.2 million feet of film, 4,500 official White House recordings and 950 secret recordings. The collection also includes about 30,000 gifts to the former president.

The restrictions Congress placed on the Nixon files reflected the times.

Faced with likely impeachment over fallout from the Watergate scandal, Nixon resigned the White House in August 1974. Congress, fearing that Nixon or his supporters could destroy evidence of wrongdoing, passed the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act to ensure that the materials would be available to investigators and other legal authorities.

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