As the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace readies itself for a shift into federal hands, the National Archives announced Monday that it had selected a Cold War historian and expert on presidential recordings as the library’s first federal director.
Timothy Naftali will oversee the controversial library’s metamorphosis into a federal institution, which is expected to house a vast archive of material from the Nixon White House that the federal government has for years refused to turn over to the privately run Yorba Linda facility.
The new director said he would come to his new job neither as a Nixon partisan nor detractor. “I’m too young to have fought in any of the Nixon wars,” said Naftali, 44. “My passion is history. I do have a point of view, but I do like to let the chips fall where they may.”
The Harvard-trained historian has written at length on counterterrorism and the Cold War, but said he had written about Nixon only tangentially, in his book “Blind Spot: The Secret History of American Counterterrorism.” In it, he describes how Nixon responded to a spate of hijackings in the late 1960s and early 1970s by advocating anti-terrorism measures, including the federal air marshal program.
Naftali is a professor at the University of Virginia and director of the Presidential Recordings Program at the school’s Miller Center. He currently oversees the transcription of hundreds of secretly recorded telephone conversations made by presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Nixon.
“Nixon has left perhaps the best-documented presidency because of the tapes, and because he wrote a lot,” Naftali said. “Nixon had a layered personality. I don’t pretend to be a Nixon expert. I’m going to enjoy seeing what historians make of the material. My goal is to get it out and to create a place where people can come and learn.”
John H. Taylor, executive director of the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace Foundation, called Naftali “an independent-minded straight shooter” and “an ideal choice” for the job.
Taylor said Naftali’s work with presidential recordings was particularly relevant, because the National Archives plans to transfer nearly 4,000 hours of Nixon’s presidential tapes to the library, many of which are difficult to hear.
Taylor also pointed to Naftali’s expertise on Cold War diplomacy and espionage.
“With a president who was the quintessential Cold War president, who came into national prominence as a result of the Alger Hiss case, you have someone perfectly positioned to help deepen the public understanding of Richard Nixon,” Taylor said.
Naftali said he planned to update the library’s museum and launch a Nixon oral history project, conferences on Vietnam and Sino-American relations, and a fellowship program for visiting scholars.
Since the Nixon foundation opened the library with private funds in 1990, it has been the only presidential library not part of the National Archives system.
In 1974, amid fears that Nixon would destroy Watergate-related documents, Congress mandated that his White House materials be kept in the Washington area, though lawmakers dropped the requirement two years ago.
Over the next few years, along with the trove of presidential tapes and 46 million pages of presidential materials, the National Archives plans to send the library 350,000 photographs, 4,000 videotapes, and 30,000 artifacts and presidential gifts.
Naftali, who begins work at the library in October, will oversee its metamorphosis into a federal facility, with National Archives staff assuming operational duties.
Critics have long maintained that the library whitewashes the Nixon presidency, particularly his role in the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam War.
Last year, the library drew criticism for canceling a symposium on the Vietnam War, and a group of scholars urged Congress to halt the planned transfer of materials from the National Archives to the library, fearing what might happen to them.
Seeking the legitimacy of a place among the 11 other presidential libraries operated by the National Archives, the library has pledged to offer “more strictly factual” exhibits.
Naftali said he would divide his time between the Yorba Linda library and the National Archives in College Park, Md. As the library director, part of his job is to oversee the declassification of more than 1,000 remaining hours of Nixon tapes, he said.
“My bias is for release, and so I will be working closely with the archivist of the United States to make as much of the Nixon record available to the public as possible,” Naftali said.