Nixon Library Can’t Be Trusted Not to Play With His Words
It’s rare for a scholarly conference to make the newspapers. It’s rarer for a conference to make the papers when it never takes place. But that’s what happened recently when the Richard M. Nixon Library & Birthplace in Yorba Linda canceled a symposium on Nixon and the Vietnam War that it had planned to sponsor with Whittier College.
The cancellation provoked an uproar. The library claims that tickets weren’t selling well enough, but most observers see political motives at work -- more of Nixon’s old concern with shaping his reputation.
For years the Nixon Library has seemed more intent on waging a campaign to improve the late president’s image than on portraying him accurately. When the library opened in 1990, its then-director, Hugh Hewitt, announced it would bar researchers deemed not “responsible.” “I don’t think we’d ever open the doors to Bob Woodward,” he said by way of example. (The policy was retracted.) Worse, the library was caught editing the “smoking gun” tape -- the White House recording of June 23, 1972, that implicated Nixon in the Watergate cover-up -- to distort its meaning in an exhibit.
Today, the museum’s events typically include book-promoting speeches from the likes of Newt Gingrich and Ari Fleischer. The rare invitation to a serious historian will pair him or her with a far-out Nixon defender, like conspiracy theorist Len Colodny, one of the authors of “Silent Coup,” which denies the basic facts of Watergate, maintaining it was a crisis imposed on Nixon, not a crisis Nixon imposed on the country.
Thus, for the library to host a conference on Nixon and the Vietnam War that featured an array of esteemed scholars, including critics of Nixon’s presidency, seemed to signal a willingness to start dealing honestly with Nixon’s record, to “let the chips fall where they may,” in the words of the current library director and longtime Nixon aide, John H. Taylor.
It was a hopeful sign in light of another development: Last year, under pressure from the Nixon family, Congress and President Bush cleared the way for the Nixon Library to become part of the official presidential library system.
Some history is in order. In 1955, Congress formalized an arrangement that Franklin D. Roosevelt made for his library in 1939 -- presidential libraries would be built with private funds, but the National Archives would administer their holdings of presidential documents.
Since then, only Nixon has been denied an official library. In 1974, Congress and President Ford gave the government “complete possession and control” of Nixon’s presidential papers and tapes because Nixon destroyed some official documents and tried to abscond with others.
The former president sued but ultimately lost in a 1977 Supreme Court ruling, with Justice John Paul Stevens calling Nixon an “unreliable custodian.” So the Nixon Library has remained an anomaly. Run entirely by the Nixon family foundation, it contains none of his presidential papers, which are housed at a National Archives facility in College Park, Md.
In 2004, however, Congress voted to let the library join the government system and to transfer Nixon’s papers to Yorba Linda.
Skeptics were assured that with Nixon dead and the National Archives participating, the papers would be handled responsibly. But the Vietnam War conference’s cancellation has renewed fears that the Nixon Library is still too devoted to public relations to merit the imprimatur of the presidential library system.
For even government oversight doesn’t guarantee unbiased treatment of Nixon’s legacy. His family, friends and former aides would still have a hand in important decisions, including staffing the archives and granting access to private papers. Sixteen conference participants, including me, have signed a letter asking Congress to reconsider its 2004 decision.
As it is, a commission recently judged all the presidential libraries’ museums and programs to be falling short in their educational mission. Led by the Princeton University historian Stanley N. Katz, the commission recommended that external experts periodically evaluate the libraries’ public programs. It warned that “too little is known about the priorities, resources and influence” of the foundations whose financial backing guides the libraries. Such problems would be all the more egregious in Yorba Linda because of the distinctive nature of the quest to rewrite the history of his presidency.
Historical inquiry requires revising old orthodoxies. Historians should -- and do -- debate all aspects of Nixon’s presidency, such as the wisdom of detente, the merits of his Vietnam War strategies, and whether Watergate is best understood as a chapter in the growth of the national security state or as an expression of Nixon’s troubled psyche. But historians must not be forced by propagandizing loyalists and conspiracy theorists to fight a rear-guard action of constantly explaining anew the accepted facts of a constitutional crisis.
Other presidents have their boosters who lobby for favorable interpretations of their records. Lyndon B. Johnson’s library teaches that the Vietnam War unfairly overshadowed his achievements in passing domestic legislation. Bill Clinton’s sets the Monica Lewinsky affair in the context of the Whitewater investigations. But in no case besides Nixon’s do these labors amount to a bid to deny history.
For that reason, Nixon’s papers should remain in College Park, where professional archivists have ensured open access, free of political taint. Let the Nixon Library promote its tendentious view of Nixon and Watergate -- but without the blessing of historians or, indeed, the American people.