FOR MORE than 13 years, Richard Nixon has been confronting his final crisis: posterity's judgment of his reputation. He has campaigned arduously to shape his historical reputation in his own image. Nothing is more important to that end than to control the public use of his presidential papers. His struggle has made those papers all the more obvious and desirable a prize.

After four years of processing, and then another four contending with Nixon objections, the National Archives formally opened the first segments of the Nixon administation's papers last May. The Archives released them in stages, thirteen years after Congress passed the 1974 Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act vesting control of the papers in the Archives.

The Archives' staff has done its review work well. Indeed, while the Reagan administration initially supported Nixon's assertion of control over the papers, it has now acquiesced in the Archive's recommendations thereby undercutting Nixon's continuing attempts to prevent implementation of the rules governing the release and use of his papers. Nixon's latest attempt came last April 7, when his lawyers filed 3,000 typewritten pages objecting to the release of approximately 10 percent of the material that the Archives had approved for release in May. The lawyers based their objections on various grounds such as private political association, invasion of privacy, and privileged information.

The Nixon lawyers presented their latest claims less than a month before the scheduled May 4 opening of the papers.The lawyers insisted that they made no claims against material that contained evidence of abuses of governmental power, "generically referred to as 'Watergate'." Of course, if material, such as Haldeman's 1972 campaign notes, could be classified under the political association, privileged, or privacy categories, as the lawyers have done, that would conveniently eliminate some Watergate-related material.

The objections involve more than 150,000 documents of the so-called "Special Files." Nixon's lawyers included 226 pages of objections to the release of papers from his files, 175 pages to those of John Dean's papers, 49 pages to Alexander Haig'sHaig somehow managed to remove his most valuable papers from the White House and they now are under his personal seal at the Library of Congress, a classic example of the "privatization" of public records), 109 pages of objections for the likes of speechwriter Kenneth Khachigian, but only 44 and 14 pages for former "Plumbers" Egil Krogh and David Young.

One will look in vain in Krogh's and Young's papers for anything revealing or insightful on the Plumbers. Since their work touched on "national security" matters, the National Archives already had vetted the collection. Researchers can undertake a lengthy, tedious appellate route to overcome such closings if they wish to argue that present-day national security considerations are not imperiled.

Nixon's pages of objections list the nature of the document, giving us just enough hint that his research aides proceeded in a serendipitous, if not uninformed, manner. The Krogh exclusions included an agenda for a meeting with Attorney General John Mitchell, a memorandum on The Save the Seals Campaign, Billy Graham's interest in a law case, and an agenda for a meeting on Food, Nutrition, and Health.

The objections to the release of certain items in Nixon's own files also ranged from the tantalizing to the trivial. They included a copy of one of Pat Nixon's schedules, a commentary on Chief Justice Warren Burger's beliefs, some paper regarding Julie Nixon's trip to Asia, a comment on the Davis Cup team, the president's view on how hard he worked and a reminder of his ability to speak without notes (both comments pervade the release material), advice from Billy Graham on "how to present this whole thing," a strictly confidential memo from Murray Chotiner, a memo proposing support for what became the Newspaper Preservation Act in 1969 (suspending the anti-trust laws), a note to Henry Kissinger regarding the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Thomas Moorer (who was receiving documents stolen by a yeoman on Kissinger's staff), some advice from Bebe Rebozo, memos on Frank Sinatra's White House appearances (other memos indicate Nixon didn't want him to entertain), a list of invitees for a Golda Meir dinner, and Jeanne Dixon's predictions regarding Castro. Altogether, a grab-bag.

The most notable and lengthy objections were to the Haldeman papers -- 830 pages in total. These included all materials exchanged between Haldeman and his key aides, Larry Higby and Gordon Strachan, and the boxes of his notes relating to the Campaign of 1972. It is a reasonable assumption that those materials will demonstrate how Nixon and Haldeman micro-managed all aspects of the campaign.

At one place the lawyers objected to "everything in this folder {about 500 pages} except material related to abuse of power." One archivist reviewed the folder and determined that only two 1-page documents were not related to abuse of power considerations.

After the lawyers filed their voluminous objections, the archival staff removed the approximately 150,000 pages from the files. Each item specifically objected to had to be painstakingly located, and then removed. The procedure took between nine and ten thousand man hours. The staff costs, including those of senior grade archivists, begin with a conservative estimate of $100,000. Twenty staffers worked nearly three months just to remove the objectionable materials. Equally important, the staff has been diverted from getting on with the processing of other administration material, perhaps less sensational, but insightful into the everyday work and real achievements of the Nixon administration. Not for the first time is Richard Nixon his own worst enemy.

Stanley Kutler is writing a history of Watergate. He is E. Gordon Fox Professor of American Institutions at the University of Wisconsin.