Nixon Library director is stepping down

After dodging resistance from Richard Nixon loyalists and Watergate-era operatives, the cold-war historian who oversaw the dramatic metamorphosis of the former president’s library from roadside attraction to respected federal institution is stepping aside.

Timothy Naftali, 49, who presided over the transfer of the long-ridiculed private library to federal hands in 2007, will leave Nov. 19 and said he plans to turn his focus to finishing a book he’s been researching on the 37th president’s great rival: John F. Kennedy.

“I have much broader intellectual interests than Richard Nixon’s presidency, and I’m going back to them,” said Naftali, who will also join the New America Foundation, a think tank, as a senior research fellow.

Photos: New Watergate exhibit at Nixon Library


Naftali’s most visible imprint on the Yorba Linda library has been the transformation of the Watergate exhibit. For years after its opening in 1990, the exhibit reflected Nixon’s own version of the events that drove him from power in 1974.

Critics who derided the library as an altar to Nixon pointed to its portrayal of Watergate as Exhibit 1. There was a heavily edited version of the incriminating “smoking gun” tape and text that portrayed the scandal as a “coup” staged by Nixon’s enemies.

After the National Archives took control of the library in 2007, however, Naftali’s effort to reshape the exhibit began in earnest.

In April, he unveiled a $500,000 new exhibit that featured a comprehensive chronicle of Watergate, placing it in the context of a broader pattern of dirty tricks and sabotage emanating from the Nixon White House.

The new exhibit included 131 taped interviews with key players and observers, including Dwight Chapin, Nixon’s appointments secretary, who contended that Nixon was present for the launch of a dirty-tricks squad.

The Nixon Foundation, made up of the former president’s loyalists, fought unsuccessfully to block portions of the exhibit, including a section called “Dirty Tricks and Political Espionage,” and their panel-by-panel critique of the new text resulted in a nine-month delay of the opening.

“I thought I would have completed what I set out to do at the library in three years. It took a little longer. I don’t regret that,” said Naftali, who has been at the library more than four years.

The dispute over the exhibit was part of a larger clash between the Foundation and Naftali.

The foundation temporarily suspended event funding in 2009, when Naftali invited former White House counsel John Dean to speak. For loyalists, Dean, who revealed Nixon’s involvement in the Watergate cover-up, is a despised figure.

John Taylor, a former Nixon aide who ran the foundation until 2009, said Naftali had put the library on solid footing both with the Watergate exhibit and the transfer of Nixon’s White House records from Washington, D.C., to California.

“Mr. Nixon’s legacy will ultimately be dictated by scholars and researchers and journalists,” Taylor said. “The era of dueling opinions between loyalists, and opponents of Mr. Nixon, is an artifact of a time that’s fading, as those of us who knew him are fading from the scene.”

Stanley Kutler, a Watergate scholar who characterized the library for years as “a Southern California theme park” with little relation to reality, said Naftali had made the archives far more accessible to historians. “He has fought the good fight,” Kutler said. “He stood history on its feet. History had been standing on its head.”

The Nixon Foundation did not return calls seeking comment by press time.

Photos: New Watergate exhibit at Nixon Library