The ‘new’ Nixon library’s challenge: Fairly depicting a ‘failed presidency’
Renovation at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)
When the Richard Nixon Presidential Library first opened 26 years ago, it was dismissed by many historians as more of a whitewash than a faithful retelling of his presidency.
For years, the museum’s Watergate exhibit, approved by Nixon himself, depicted the scandal as a “coup” orchestrated by Nixon enemies and unethical journalists. Historian and Nixon scholar Stanley Kutler once called the library just “another Southern California theme park” whose reality level was “slightly better than Disneyland.”
But in 2007, when the library finally entered the official presidential library system under the auspices of the National Archives, the exhibit was torn down and eventually replaced with a much more critical version. The museum’s heavily edited rendition of the “smoking gun” tape that implicated Nixon was replaced with the full recording, and the new exhibit placed the Watergate episode in the context of a larger campaign of presidential secrecy and sabotage.
Now a $15-million renovation focuses on the rest of the museum’s decades-old galleries, set to reopen in October, with the aim of building an unflinching but well-rounded portrait of a complicated man whose long career has often been overshadowed by his quick and stunning fall from grace.
“Anybody and everybody who’s taken a critical look at this is going to look at it through the lens of a failed presidency, ultimately, a president who resigned. And they wonder, ‘What are they trying to cover up?’” said Michael Ellzey, director of the museum since 2014 and an employee of the National Archives and Records Administration, which jointly operates the site.
“The intellectual honesty and integrity of this was very important to us. We wanted to be beyond reproach.”
(The William J. Clinton Presidential Library, also run by the National Archives but built with $165 million in private donations through the Clinton Foundation, includes a section dedicated to the 42nd president’s impeachment. It depicts the investigation as a political witch hunt.)
While the updated Watergate exhibit was unveiled in 2011, the redesign of the rest of the galleries, with some 70-plus exhibits, completes a process that began more than a decade ago to bring greater legitimacy and historical honesty to the Nixon library.
The renovation is being paid for by funds raised by the Nixon Foundation. But the gallery designs and exhibit content will be the result of an ongoing collaboration between the foundation and the federal government. Construction kicked off in January, with Karl Rove and Christopher Nixon Cox, Nixon’s grandson, in attendance.
“We’ve got a generation of guests that were either born after or know very little about this president,” said Bill Baribault, president of the Nixon Foundation. Nixon, for many of those who didn’t live the history, has become synonymous with the scandal that led to his political downfall and, ultimately, his resignation.
But, said Baribault, few people know about his far-reaching policy feats, which include founding the Environmental Protection Agency, signing into law Title IX, which banned gender bias in colleges and universities receiving federal funding, and ending the military draft.
“It’s a chance to tell the complete story,” Baribault said.
One of Ellzey’s first tasks was to mend relations and ease long-simmering tensions between the leadership of the Nixon Foundation and the National Archives over the portrayal of Nixon’s legacy.
The sometimes contentious relationship between the two has deep roots.
This was a good man who accomplished many things, who ultimately failed in certain ways and then fought his way back. It’s just a good story to tell.
— Michael Ellzey, director of the Richard Nixon Library and Museum
The library opened in 1990, built with $21 million from the private Nixon Foundation, with a board that was (and still is) composed largely of Nixon loyalists, including his daughters Tricia Nixon Cox and Julie Nixon Eisenhower.
Nixon attended its opening, along with three other presidents and a crowd of 50,000 people. “Nothing we have ever seen matches this moment — to be welcomed home again,” Nixon said.
An act of Congress, stemming from a fear that Nixon supporters would destroy crucial papers if given the chance, mandated in 1974 that his presidential records stay with the National Archives and therefore out of the library.
When the library finally joined the federal presidential library system, its first director, historian Timothy Naftali, set his sights on the discredited Watergate narrative.
But Naftali received tremendous pushback, much of it from Nixon loyalists and former deputies, who filed a 132-page letter of objection that held up the 2011 reopening for months. Supporters of the former president even employed hardball tactics, temporarily tying up Senate confirmation of U.S. Archivist David Ferriero over the issue.
Naftali resigned eight months after the Watergate exhibit reopened. The museum was without a director for three years until Ellzey was appointed in 2014.
Since then, Ellzey said, the relationship between the Nixon Foundation and National Archives employees has improved.
“Their natural inclination was to be protective of his legacy,” Ellzey said, but the foundation “made a commitment to me that ... it was not going to be any kind of whitewash of the bad times and a propping up of the good times.”
In the end, Ellzey said, both sides agreed that Nixon’s legacy would be well served by a museum that hewed to the historical record.
“This was a good man who accomplished many things, who ultimately failed in certain ways and then fought his way back. It’s just a good story to tell.”
Unlike most museums, this new story begins in the middle, in the tumultuous events leading up to the 1968 election. Martin Luther King Jr. had just been assassinated, as had Robert F. Kennedy. Rioting in cities across America prompted the Marines to prop up machine guns on the steps of the U.S. Capitol.
“We thought, ‘Let’s start where the action is,’” said Kate McConnell, creative director at Thinkwell Group, the company at the center of the redesign. “Going back to 1913 can feel really distant and kind of hard to contextualize when [Nixon] is just this little boy. But starting in 1968 and talking about the country in turmoil and the Vietnam War and the cultural and social conflicts gets you excited.”
When it reopens in October, visitors will pass through the chaos of the late 1960s and Nixon’s pitch as the law-and-order candidate, directly into his election, inauguration, and inside the Oval Office. The exact replica will include a copy of Nixon’s desk, where visitors can sit down and take a photo or look at artifacts. (Though there are no plans to place replicas of his famed secret tape recorders, the docents will be able to point out the locations of the five desk microphones and two wall lamps where Nixon put them.)
In the newly expanded Vietnam War exhibit will be a replica of a safe that contained the troop report for the conflict on the day of Nixon’s inauguration. It was a parting gift from President Lyndon Johnson that he left untouched as a stark reminder until the war was over.
The museum then opens up into a large gallery depicting Nixon’s top domestic and foreign policy achievements, including his environmental initiatives and his role in desegregating schools in the South.
“Those were things that were ahead of his time, and that he didn’t necessarily get credit or recognition for,” said grandson Christopher Nixon Cox.
The gallery also will include an alcove fashioned into a walk-in closet featuring the travels of Pat Nixon, who was the most widely traveled First Lady in history until Hillary Clinton.
Ellzey said the museum’s new galleries will seek to raise more questions than they answer, particularly with thought experiments that prompt visitors to make decisions like whether or not to arm Israel in the Yom Kippur War or whether to order the invasion of Cambodia based on the information Nixon had at the time.
Also new to the museum will be an expanded look at Nixon’s historic trip to China, including a photo of the handshake between Nixon and Chinese Premier Chou En-lai, the first direct contact the two countries had had in 23 years.
The galleries continue on into life in the White House, a facsimile of La Casa Pacifica, the oceanfront San Clemente villa that served Nixon’s working Western White House, and his re-election in 1972. As it has for the last five years, the Watergate exhibit will include 131 taped interviews with various characters involved in the episode and the full “smoking gun” tape.
The dark final day of his presidency is punctuated with a scene of the Nixons staring out of the windows of the Army One helicopter that carried them to Andrews Air Force Base on their way back to California, before launching into the origin story of Richard M. Nixon, who was born in the Nixon family home that still stands on the museum property a short walk from the galleries.
The sunny clapboard farmhouse, built by Nixon’s father in 1912, includes a replica of the bedroom where the future president was born and an upstairs loft where he and three of his brothers shared just 130 square feet of space. His gravesite is a few feet from the home.
It’s one of a handful of attractions visitors can still experience ahead of the Oct. 14 reopening.
Christopher Nixon Cox said, on balance, he and his family are excited about the reopening of the museum’s galleries.
“It’s a very candid look at my grandfather’s presidency and his life, and I think in many ways, you really see the man,” Cox said. “And to the extent that it allows people to look at the positive aspects of my grandfather’s legacy in a new light…we’ll take the good with the bad.”
For more on California politics, follow @cmaiduc.
1:35 p.m.: This article was updated with more details about the galleries that showcase Nixon’s decision-making.
This article was originally published at 12:05 a.m.
Get our Essential Politics newsletter
The latest news, analysis and insights from our politics teams from Sacramento to D.C.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.