Exorcising Nixon’s ghost
A FEW YEARS after Richard M. Nixon’s death in 1994, the LA Weekly reported that a guard at the Nixon Library & Birthplace in Yorba Linda had noticed some eerie phenomena: a phosphorescent green cloud over the former president’s headstone; a specter entering Nixon’s boyhood house; knocking sounds from inside the museum’s Watergate room.
From his multiple political comebacks to his post-Watergate bid to repair his tattered reputation, Nixon has refused to expire. If his ghost isn’t literally with us, his influence very much is. This year alone has brought half a dozen major Nixon books and a play (soon to be a movie), “Frost/Nixon.” And Wednesday, after nearly 17 years of exile, the Nixon Library will become part of the National Archives as an official federal presidential library.
Since 1974, Nixon’s presidential papers and tapes have resided, by an act of Congress, not at the privately run Yorba Linda facility but at a National Archives building outside Washington. In 2004, however, President Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress, with scarce debate or attention, changed the 1974 law, clearing a place for Nixon in the government-run library system.
I was among the many historians who objected. It seemed poetic justice that the Nixon Library, alone among such institutions, existed outside the system — for outside the system was where Nixon had operated. As the only president forced to resign for illegal deeds, he deserved pariah status, and excluding the Nixon Library from National Archives membership reflected that.
Practical concerns also recommended keeping Nixon’s presidential documents out of Nixonian hands. Just as no president worked harder, through fair means or foul, to shape his public image while in office, so none pressed harder to revise history’s judgment after he served. He tried to remove and destroy some of his records and sued to suppress others. Supporting a decision against Nixon in one of those lawsuits, Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens described him as “an unreliable custodian.”
The singularly self-serving and misleading exhibits about Nixon on display at the library, which opened in 1990, reinforced this prevalent skepticism. So did the library’s cancellation in 2005 of a scholarly conference on the Vietnam War after it became clear that Nixon critics would outnumber defenders on the program. After that fiasco, 16 scholars appealed (in vain) to Congress to stop the library’s transfer to the National Archives.
Surprising academics who feared he would toe a conservative line, Allen Weinstein, the archivist of the United States, won an agreement from the Nixon Foundation to overhaul the museum, grant full control of the documents to the National Archives, and even deed to the archives additional materials previously deemed private.
No one can predict how sweeping or effective that agreement will prove in practice. Several questions remain: Will the library finally make public the remaining unheard Oval Office tapes? Will the Nixon Foundation, which will still raise funds for the library, stay out of all questions of access to the tapes and papers? Or will it continue to throw up roadblocks for scholars? Will the newly released documents be spared the excessive redaction that can render them almost useless — as happened recently with the so-called CIA family jewels?
Wariness is warranted. As a longtime skeptic, however, I’m beginning to develop a cautious optimism that the change might be real.
My optimism may be, in part, a result of resignation. The transfer is a fait accompli. Stopping it would have taken an expensive, time-consuming and risky effort by a devoted scholar — something like historian Stanley Kutler’s heroic, years-long battle to release Nixon’s White House tapes. It’s not surprising that no one tried to do so this time.
But my optimism also follows some encouraging signs. Timothy J. Naftali, a serious historian without loyalties to Nixon, was appointed library director last year, and he ripped out the shameful Watergate portion of the exhibit. He has expanded public programming beyond the old fare of Nixon apologists and Fox News-style pundits. His public statements bespeak a resolve to oversee a new, depoliticized institution.
Finally, it’s becoming clear that Nixon’s last comeback failed. When Gerald R. Ford died in December, some fretted that the outrage over his 1974 pardon of Nixon had faded, that Americans had forgotten Watergate’s gravity and Nixon’s malevolence. But I think any newfound support for the pardon signaled the opposite: Nixon’s name has become so securely fused with the abuse of power that whether he served time in prison no longer troubles us much. Indeed, by 2006, Nixon’s approval rating, having peaked at his death, had fallen back to 28%, near its Watergate nadir.
It was Nixon’s war on history that made scholars leery of affording any legitimacy to his library. But while the process of revision never ceases, it now seems safe to say that — like the once-contentious debates about the morality of slavery, the futility of Prohibition or the greatness of FDR — that war is over. Nixon lost.
On Wednesday, the new Nixon Library will host a ceremony celebrating its debut as an official presidential archives. Whatever is sighted there, we can be confident that Nixon’s ghost is not coming back.
DAVID GREENBERG, the author of “Nixon’s Shadow,” teaches history and media studies at Rutgers University.