The War Over Nixon

The ghost of our most divisive modern president haunts efforts to make his library tell the truth


Los Angeles magazine, July 2010

Tim Naftali thought docents at the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum should be honest about the Watergate tapes. The docents, though, couldn’t talk about what they didn’t know. “I had docents come to me and say, ‘Is there anything incriminating on the tapes?’?” says Naftali, the library director. The tapes were so damaging to Richard M. Nixon that they were a reason he resigned as president of the United States. Naftali also thought the docents should come clean about the White House “plumbers,”  the men behind the 1972 break-in to spy on Democratic National Committee headquarters, which helped bring Nixon down. “I had docents say, ‘What are the plumbers?’?”

So Naftali, a Cold War expert hired by the National Archives four years ago to convert the acolyte-run Nixon Library & Birthplace in Yorba Linda into a federal research center, took what he thought was the best option. He stripped the docents of one of their favorite jobs—conducting student tours—and told them to know the facts and stick to them when they spoke to visitors. “I didn’t want them to say things that would give the impression that we are a legacy shop,” Naftali says. His decision angered the docents. “Some of them quit…. It’s been very intense. They have been very upset. They have written letters to get me fired, things like that.”

One docent openly called Naftali, who is gay, a “fag.” Ron Walker, who worked in the Nixon White House and now is Naftali’s counterpart at the nonprofit Richard Nixon Foundation that created the library, acknowledges that “coded actions” indicating Naftali’s sexual orientation had chilled his reception among some docents and guards. “Jokes behind the scenes are not helpful to anyone,” says Walker, adding that the docent’s name-calling was “unbelievable.” The docent resigned. Naftali, for his part, tries to downplay the incident as a singular expression of small-minded frustration amid a broad clash of cultures, sense of purpose, and historical perspective.

Such is the nature of détente at the Nixon library, where a fight still rages over how to portray the life and legacy of one of the nation’s most divisive politicians. It pits true believers, including some members of Nixon’s inner circle, against Naftali, a respected historian who was a 12-year-old Canadian schoolboy when the president left the White House for de facto exile at his estate in San Clemente. Naftali’s efforts to present Nixon’s history fully and accurately go public this month, when the National Archives launches the library and museum as a center offering unvarnished information about the president. It will be the first time since Nixon resigned in 1974 that his personal papers and his White House records, along with copies of the Watergate tapes, will be available under one roof. At the same time, the Richard Nixon Foundation, a new incarnation of the private organization that started the original Nixon Library & Birthplace in 1990, will mark its 20th anniversary with what it hopes will be a large commemoration. Befitting the strained détente, the celebrations will be held in separate parts of the same building. Naftali and the National Archives will be looking forward to serving visitors and researchers, and the foundation will be looking backward to honor its namesake.


Now an American citizen, Naftali, who is a political independent, studied at Yale and Johns Hopkins before earning a doctorate in history at Harvard. He has written books about the Cold War and terrorism and worked on the 9/11 Commission. Lanky and dark haired, the West Hollywood resident favors slacks and open-necked shirts that make him seem more like a graduate student than a presidential librarian—another point of friction with some of the Nixon partisans. Walker, whose office is a short walk but a world away from Naftali’s, complains about a video in which Naftali welcomed visitors to the library wearing a brown suit and a T-shirt. “A green T-shirt,” Walker says. At the same time, Naftali is just as clear about his frustration with the partisans, especially among the docents. “Without creating a climate of disrespect,” he says, “I’m trying to move them to a position where, when they are in the museum, they work for the National Archives.” (Marg Garvey, president of the Docent Guild, declined a request for an interview.)

In some ways, these culture clashes are echoes from Nixon’s departure from office. After Nixon resigned ahead of his likely impeachment, Congress, fearing that he would destroy evidence, passed the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act, barring him from taking his official papers with him. He was the only president to be so treated. After years of legal wrangling, Nixon’s estate accepted $18 million for the papers and tapes in 2000, and the National Archives kept the collection. It is one of the largest presidential archives: 4,000 video recordings, nearly 4,500 audio recordings, 30,000 gifts to Nixon from average Americans and foreign heads of state alike, 300,000 photographs, 2 million feet of film, 46 million pages of documents, and 3,700 hours of the infamous White House tapes.

By the time the Nixon estate signed off on the deal, his library was a decade old and the subject of running jokes because of displays that even Walker says presented skewed versions of crucial moments in the president’s career. The Watergate scandal, for instance, had been reduced to a single snippet of tape and dismissed as an overthrow perpetrated by Nixon’s political enemies (never mind that Nixon’s fellow Republicans were lining up to impeach him). Moreover, for serious scholars of the presidency, all the best Nixon material was still on the East Coast. The library’s collection on the West Coast was limited to his personal papers, dating before and after he became chief executive, and the papers of some of his friends. 

In 1996, two years after Nixon died, John H. Taylor, then the library’s executive director and once Nixon’s post-White House chief of staff, wrested control of the complex from Nixon’s two daughters, Tricia Nixon Cox and Julie Nixon Eisenhower. A board of directors took over, and eventually “the girls,” as Walker calls them, backed a decision to add the facility to the National Archives system of presidential repositories, which includes the Ronald Reagan library in Simi Valley. The benefits were twofold: This shifted costs to the federal government and removed a stigma by getting the Archives’ blessing. Today Nixon’s official papers and copies of his White House tapes are housed not far from his black marble grave. Only the original tapes, which are still being processed, remain in a federal facility in Maryland. Naftali says it makes more sense to leave them with their working team of archivists rather than try to persuade the team to move west.

The National Archives controls all of Nixon’s holdings and most of the Yorba Linda compound, which encompasses the library and display areas, the graves of Richard and Pat Nixon, and the helicopter in which they flew from the South Lawn of the White House on the first leg of their trip as outcasts to San Clemente. The Nixon Foundation retains control of its offices, the president’s birthplace, a reflecting pool, and a replica of the East Room of the White House, where it holds weddings, corporate receptions, and other events. Think of the facility as a duplex shared by two highly suspicious neighbors, each using the same foyer and elevator but then going their separate ways.


Old habits?—and suspicions—?die hard. In March 2005, Taylor canceled an academic conference on Nixon and Vietnam that would have included such Nixon critics as Stanley I. Kutler and Richard Reeves. Taylor blamed a lack of advance commitments by academics and concern that the library would lose money. The academics read the last-minute decision as a refusal by Taylor and Nixon’s protectors to turn independent scholars loose on hallowed ground. (Taylor declined interview requests.) Some of them feared the incident signaled that Nixonian paranoia at the library might continue on into the National Archives era. But Naftali, who took over two years later, says the passions and anxieties have ebbed. “I knew how much anger there was among historians of the Nixon era about moving stuff here,” Naftali says, “and I’m really happy that we don’t see that anger anymore.”

Nixonians have less confidence. Taylor left the foundation in February 2009, and last summer Naftali asked John Dean to speak at the library. Dean is the former White House counsel whom old Nixon hands liken to Judas for revealing details of the Watergate scandal. “He’s a rat,” Walker says. For a while, the foundation suspended funding for some programs, forcing Naftali to scramble for cash. It was the invitation to Dean that prompted Walker, a former military man who directed Nixon’s arrangements for White House trips, to become the foundation president. Stocky and balding with a fringe of gray-white hair, Walker says he and Naftali get along better than Naftali and Taylor. “It got to be a war between them,” Walker says. Getting along better, however, does not mean agreeing completely. Walker thinks Naftali’s showdown with the docents revealed a lack of managerial savvy. “I could have taken those docents and wrapped them around my finger with just a little bit of humility,” Walker says. “But to push it in their face—taking the school tour away from them…”

Walker also is perturbed over gaps Naftali left behind in exhibits when he removed the truncated Watergate display and others he considered historically erroneous, including one that failed to say it was Ohio national guardsmen who fired on students during an antiwar demonstration at Kent State. Those decisions are Naftali’s to make, Walker says, but he chafes at the months it has taken Naftali, who has been shuttling back and forth to Washington to oversee the transfer of Nixon’s files, to put new exhibits into place. “I don’t like to see empty spaces,” ?Walker says. “That’s annoying. I don’t know whether he doesn’t have the ability, or the capability, or what’s going on.”

Naftali will offer the foundation an opportunity to comment on new Watergate exhibits before making them public later this summer. He shrugs off complaints. “I don’t take everything so seriously,” he says. “Because there are people who really, really care about this, they can be a bit nasty. Some people have this anger from that era. You have to be sensitive to that.”

At the same time, Naftali seems to relish symbols of the clash. During a private tour of the library, he walks to doors leading from the entry hall to a broad terrace. He points to the floor. On a doormat to the left is a new Naftali-approved logo that spells out N-I-X-O-N, so stylized that it could be a sticker on a surfboard. To the right, across an invisible line that separates most of the library from the foundation, the doormat is blank, a silent protest by the last vestiges of what Richard Nixon called his silent majority.      

Scott Martelle is an Irvine-based journalist and author. His The Fear Within: Spies, Commies and American Democracy on Trial, is due this winter from Rutgers University Press.

Illustration by Tim Bower

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