In the official narrative of the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace, Carl Bernstein has long been one of the arch-villains, a reporter whose name -- along with that of former Washington Post colleague Bob Woodward -- elicited special loathing.
That sentiment was on display at the Watergate exhibit that stood for years in the Yorba Linda library, where a Nixon-approved text falsely accused the reporters of offering bribes to further their groundbreaking coverage of the scandal that drove the 37th president from office.
The exhibit was removed in March, marking a symbolic turning point for an institution ridiculed by scholars since its 1990 opening. On Monday came another milestone: Bernstein himself visited for the first time. He pronounced it “a very moving experience.”
Touring the grounds before his scheduled speech, the reporter-turned-bestselling-author quietly entered the white clapboard farmhouse where Nixon was born. He peered at the piano where, as a boy, Nixon learned to play. He bent before a glass case to examine the marriage certificate of Nixon’s parents. He walked around the helicopter where Nixon took his final flight from the White House lawn.
“It’s impossible. . . not to feel some kind of strange kinship and not to feel part of this place,” Bernstein later told the crowd that filled a 300-seat auditorium.
Bernstein came at the invitation of Tim Naftali, the library’s first federal director, who in July presided over the library’s shift from a privately run facility -- controlled by zealous Nixon loyalists -- to a National Archives institution. Among Naftali’s first acts was the dismantling of the Watergate exhibit that characterized the scandal as a “coup” hatched by the president’s enemies. The director expects the new Watergate exhibit, which will feature first-person oral accounts by participants in the drama -- including Bernstein -- to open in January.
Although the National Archives runs the library now, the Nixon Foundation runs the museum’s gift shop and funds exhibits, many of them celebratory. After touring the museum, Bernstein said he found the two functions were “a wonderful melding,” that helped cast Nixon on a human scale and conveyed “a magnificent feeling about a whole life lived.”
Woodward “and I are bound in our lives to this man, and each of us has spent a lot of our lives thinking about him,” Bernstein said in an interview. Nixon is “a genuinely tragic figure, and you feel some of that tragedy here. He spent his life seeking the presidency and was forced to resign not because of his policy failures but because of his flaws.”
He added, “One of the good things about having the archives here is to take this out of the ludicrous notion of Woodward-Bernstein-Washington Post versus Nixon combat.”
Bernstein, who was promoting his new biography of Hillary Clinton, “A Woman In Charge,” said that if he had predicted in the late 1990s that he would be speaking at the Nixon Library about Clinton as a plausible next president, “I think I would have been accused of smoking something -- inhaling.”
Although Watergate represented a case in which “the system worked” -- with the news media, judiciary and Congress each performing its role -- he said the Bush presidency, by contrast, reflects a system that doesn’t work.
“We have not had accountability,” he said. “We haven’t had congressional oversight.”
Not all those in attendance at his speech were aware of Bernstein’s iconic status. Sayra Morales, 26, a journalism student at Fullerton College, said she attended for extra credit. She said she was unfamiliar with the details of Nixon’s presidency, of Watergate, of Bernstein’s role in history. She knows him as the author of the Clinton biography.
“I’m not big on politics,” she said.
Not in attendance Monday was John Taylor, director of the Nixon Foundation, who helped write the text of the original Watergate exhibit attacking the reporter. Taylor was reportedly on vacation in Hawaii, though Naftali said Taylor was aware of Bernstein’s visit and had “embraced” it.
Naftali said he was delighted with the crowd that had turned out despite Bernstein’s notable lack of conservative credentials.
“I was told when I got here it couldn’t be done,” the new director said.