By Gillian Flaccus
Thursday, July 12, 2007
YORBA LINDA, Calif. -- The privately operated Richard M. Nixon Library & Birthplace was officially handed over to federal archivists yesterday, and researchers can pore over documents and tapes detailing "the good, the bad and the ugly" on the 37th president and his legacy.
After a simple opening ceremony, library officials and docents shared champagne and cake before moving to the research room to view 78,000 newly released Nixon papers and listen to 11 1/2 hours of audio tape.
"This is a great day for history. The hallmark of this new institution will be true acceptance and love for history -- the good, the bad and the ugly," said Timothy Naftali, the museum's new federal director.
"The challenge is to present a controversial, traumatic and important story in a fair and historically accurate way," he said.
For nearly 20 years, library visitors were told that the Watergate scandal was really a "coup" by Nixon's rivals and that the investigative reporting team of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein offered bribes for their nation-shaking scoops.
The new library director is taking some of the whitewash off the scandal resulting from the break-in at Democratic headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington and the subsequent White House cover-up. The revised account is a precondition for receiving 42 million pages of the former president's papers and nearly 4,000 hours of tapes, which will be moved to California in several years.
Transition to federal control ushers the black sheep of presidential libraries into the fold of the National Archives.
The new papers offer insight into Nixon's role as a GOP strategist and party leader and join his pre- and post-presidential papers, which were already in California. They were a gift from the Nixon Foundation and aren't usually part of a presidential collection, said Susan Cooper, a spokeswoman for the National Archives.
The documents show a keen interest, if not preoccupation, with stage-managing Nixon's appearances and include advice that he pay more attention to his wife, Pat.
"From time to time he should talk to her and smile at her," TV adviser Roger Ailes told Nixon's chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, in a May 1970 memo, after noting that the president walked away from Pat Nixon at a Houston event and she had to run to catch up. "Women voters are particularly sensitive to how a man treats his wife in public."
A March 1970 memo for Nixon reported on attempts to patch up relations with Ronald Reagan, then California governor. Among Reagan's beefs was that Nixon wouldn't return his calls.
With the stamp of the federal system for the library comes a major makeover for certain less-than-accurate exhibits -- a relief to Nixon scholars who were frustrated by the way the private institution had portrayed the Watergate scandal and Nixon's foreign policy.
Naftali recently oversaw the demolition of the revisionist Watergate gallery, including a section that said the scandal was a coup plotted by Democrats. The museum also told visitors that the infamous 18 1/2 -minute gap in one important White House tape -- a conversation three days after the break-in -- was because of a mechanical malfunction.
"No serious historian believes in that," said David Greenberg, a Nixon scholar at Rutgers University. "It's the opposite of truth. There was a lot along those lines in the library, which was not a matter of interpretation, but was flat wrong, a lie."