The Nixon library’s split personality

You don’t have to get all the way to the dismantled Watergate exhibit to notice the change afoot -- and underfoot -- at the Nixon Library & Birthplace in Yorba Linda. Even the logos on the welcome mats reflect the split between the flame-tending foundation that long ran the library (minus most of the presidential papers) and the National Archives, which took charge of the exhibits and research documents last year.

The old mats, which still greet visitors at the front door, are formal and presidential-looking. The mats at the entry to the archives-managed exhibits have an offbeat, ‘70s-retro style, rendered inteal and green, as though flower children had invaded the marble hallway. A display at the foundation-run gift shop promotes a talk by conservative commentator Bill O’Reilly; the archives hosted an appearance by Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein.

“What kind of changes to the library did you want to ask about?” a spokesman for the foundation inquired guardedly when I called for information Wednesday. And then, sardonically, “Oh, yes, I would expect the L.A. Times to be asking about Watergate.”

Well, considering that the archives had just released notes and recordings detailing Nixon’s attempts to smear perceived “enemies” -- anyone who disagreed about the Vietnam War -- that would seem the natural question. In 2010, those and other papers, 42 million pages of them, will move to yet-to-be-constructed space at Yorba Linda. The papers have been withheld from the library since its inception in 1990 out of concern that Nixon or his cronies would destroy damning records.

The Nixon Library was, until last year, the only presidential library since Franklin Roosevelt’s time to be run by boosters instead of the archives, and the difference showed in its almost reverential approach to a disgraced president. Now the film lauding Nixon for bringing “peace with honor” in Vietnam is preceded by a clip in which the new director, Tim Naftali, promises -- or, depending on your point of view, threatens -- that changes are in store, starting with a new Watergate exhibit to open late next year.

When I first visited the library nearly five years ago, its greatest quirk was the Watergate exhibit, which asserted that the break-in and coverup that ushered in an era of mistrust of government were actually caused by the zeal of two unethical Washington Post reporters “to create a Watergate story.” It was such an oddity that it became a bit of Nixoniana in its own right, and parts of it will be displayed alongside the truth in the new exhibit.

-- Karin Klein