As the new president and chief executive of the Richard Nixon Foundation, conservative political commentator Hugh Hewitt will oversee the legacy of perhaps the country’s most controversial president. And it’s a legacy, he said, that warrants new consideration.
“If climate change is the No. 1 issue for the next generation, who is the No. 1 president for environmental protection? Nixon,” Hewitt said during an interview Monday at the library. “He started the [Environmental Protection Agency] and signed the National Environmental Policy and Endangered Species Acts.”
Hewitt, 63, said the library’s role is to teach the public about all of the various facets of the ever-complex Nixon, “a pragmatic realist” who he says should be remembered for issues other than Watergate, such as the EPA and improving relations with China.
“People ought to know about these things,” Hewitt said.
Hewitt will take over July 1, replacing President and CEO William Baribault, who oversaw a $15-million renovation of the Yorba Linda-based Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in 2016. Baribault served for about 4 1/2 years.
“Hugh will lead the Nixon Foundation in its exciting next phase of growth, expanding its presence through national programming with an emphasis on articulating the Nixon legacy of pragmatic realism in domestic and foreign affairs,” foundation Chairman James Cavanaugh said in a press release. “It’s been 50 years since Richard Nixon’s inauguration as president, and 25 years since his passing; it’s time to consider and judge President Nixon on the totality of his life and career, and Hugh will help to make that happen.”
Hewitt is returning to the library, having been selected by Nixon to oversee the construction of the complex, which opened in 1990. Before that project, Hewitt worked for Nixon as a researcher in the 1970s and 1980s, writing the books “The Real War” and “Leaders” with the president.
“He was the best boss I ever had, so I owe him,” Hewitt said.
The foundation and the National Archives jointly run and operate the presidential library.
Hewitt worked as the library’s first executive director from 1989 to 1990. While serving in that role, Hewitt caused controversy when he told a Times reporter that researchers would be screened and that those — specifically the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward, who won the Pulitzer Prize with Post colleague Carl Bernstein for exposing Watergate — deemed anti-Nixon couldn’t view Nixon’s papers and records.
Journalists and academics protested, and the screening process was quickly eradicated. Hewitt resigned.
“That was a stupid mistake,” Hewitt said. “I was young and stupid.”
Hewitt acknowledged that the library has changed.
When it opened in 1990, the library was criticized for glossing over the sins of the Nixon presidency. The Watergate exhibit portrayed Watergate as a “coup” and accused Woodward and Bernstein of “offering bribes” to further their reporting.
After the library officially entered the presidential library system in 2007, the exhibit was replaced with one more faithful to history. The 2016 renovation overhauled most of the building, expanding existing exhibits and adding new ones.
Before opening the library, Hewitt, who lives in Irvine, worked for the Reagan administration in a number of roles. Since his political days, he’s worked as an author, lawyer and media commentator, hosting the radio program “The Hugh Hewitt Show,” providing columns to the Washington Post and appearing regularly on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Hewitt plans to continue that work, but he is taking leave from teaching law at Chapman University in Orange.