Nixon Library Joins the Club

The house where the former president was born is seen at the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace in Yorba Linda, Calif. Opened in 1990, it has been the only presidential library operating entirely with private funds.
The house where the former president was born is seen at the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace in Yorba Linda, Calif. Opened in 1990, it has been the only presidential library operating entirely with private funds. (By David Mcnew -- Getty Images)

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By Christopher Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 20, 2006

The Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace, like the president it honors, has always been outside the mainstream.

Opened in 1990 in Yorba Linda, Calif., it is the only presidential library with no original presidential papers; a 1974 law kept them in Washington out of concern that Nixon might destroy materials related to the Watergate scandal that forced him to resign.

Built for $40 million, the nine-acre complex, which includes a museum and conference space, is alone among presidential libraries in operating entirely with private funds, and is not part of the presidential library system.

All of that is expected to change this summer, as the facility joins 11 other presidential libraries operated by the National Archives under a system that began 1939.

Under President Bush's 2007 budget, the library would receive $6.9 million for construction of a 15,766-square-foot addition to house 46 million pages of presidential documents and thousands of hours of tapes and other records held by the National Archives in College Park. Congress gave $2 million to get the project started last year, after a 2004 law lifted the 30-year-old ban on removing Nixon's presidential papers and tapes from the Washington area. Nixon died in 1994.

Some historians are concerned that the records transfer might increase the Nixon family's influence over the important papers and tapes that researchers have had access to in Maryland. Also, they said, asking taxpayers to foot the bill for the construction of the storage facility at the library is unusual.

'Truly Unprecedented'

Under the presidential library system, libraries receive operating subsidies from the government but are built through private donations, sometimes with help from state and local governments. The Nixon project marks the first time that Uncle Sam is providing funds for new construction before it pays any operating expenses.

"The same people who raise money for the presidential campaigns end up raising money for the libraries," said American University history professor Anna K. Nelson, a government documents expert who has done research in six presidential libraries. "To build a new presidential library is truly unprecedented."

Yes and no, said Sharon Fawcett, assistant archivist for presidential libraries at the National Archives. Fawcett agrees that the Nixon arrangement is a departure from the norm -- but not a radical one.

The government has paid for the renovation and expansion of libraries already part of the presidential system, including $8 million for work at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, Calif., and $17.3 million to spiff up the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum in Boston. "It's different and it's not different," Fawcett said.

As recently as last March, Allen Weinstein, head of the National Archives, told library officials in a letter, "The Nixon Foundation is responsible for securing funds for the archival storage addition."

The Rev. John H. Taylor, the foundation's executive director, said in a telephone interview that Archives officials "knew when they wrote that letter that we'd be going after federal funding. We had never envisioned any other approach."


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