The bulletins from Durham, N.C., do not yet suggest who will prevail in the struggle between Terry Sanford and his rebellious professoriate over the placement of a Nixon Presidential Library at Duke University, of which the former governor (and, perhaps more to the present point, former World War II paratrooper) is president.
They do suggest, as much as the hubbub over the David Frost interviews of four years ago, a shortage of what used to be called, fancifully, scholarly detachment.
Even for those obliged to understand, not judge, the past, Richard Nixon is not yet history, he is controversy--and this to a degree that those of us who suffered an indignation flame-out at about the time of the pardon find astonishing. The gemlike glow of the Nixon furor is more easily pardoned, however, in pundits and politicians than in historians and political scientists. The latter, reportedly ringleaders of the opposition to the library at Duke, are supposed to take the long view. Aren't they?
One Duke political scientist, a friend who happens to be a distinguished student of the presidency, assures me that the real issue is not the desirability of housing Nixon's papers as such. No, they would "take the papers of Attila," he said. Rather it is the fear that a Nixon library, standing in marmoreal splendor amid the Gothic towers, would become the center of a cult, a mecca of Nixon martyrology, somehow lent a meretricious respectability by its placement at a great seat of learning.
Also, in view of the peculiar administrative arrangements that obtain at some presidential libraries, chilling visions arise in hushed scholarly caucuses of Julie Nixon Eisenhower in the role of a dragon lady. She has been the determined sentinel of her father's reputation, and is imagined spitting flames at any idle oppositionist scholar seeking the truth.
Even so, there is a hollow ring in these anxieties. The Duke controversy seems to be, in essentials, an instance of that curious inclination in the scholarly community to visit continuing retribution upon political sinners. By the same standard, one assumes, the historians of Duke would pale at the thought of a Plantagenet library housing the archives of that earlier Richard, the third king of that name of England.
The squeamishness over a Nixon Presidential Library at Duke is of a piece with the purism that shut the doors of MIT to Walt Whitman Rostow and of Columbia to Henry Kissinger. For while stark differences must be noted between the delinquencies of Richard Nixon and the fancied delinquencies of these gentlemen (at worst, they were charged with serving warlike White House masters too well), the same spirit of vindictiveness reigns.
There is, in some quarters, a stout determination to suffer no grass to grow over the battlefield of Watergate, nor over the more tragic ground of Vietnam from which in so many ways it sprang. There seems a lingering dread that by some feat of trickery, Nixon might achieve rehabilitation, might become a leper cleansed, by being memorialized in stone on the Duke campus: his crimes palliated, extenuated, even forgotten.
It seems most unlikely. Nixon's offenses were grievous and will not be forgotten. But as grievous is the illusion that the power we casually give to presidents and their advisers can be exercised without moral ambivalence. The urge within the academy to ignore or moralize about the temptations of power rather than to grasp them with compassion and perspective is dangerous. Do we imagine we must choose in presidencies between a Nixonian grasp of the black arts and the brittle Boy Scout moralism exemplified by Jimmy Carter? We imagine the improbable.
So I am with Terry Sanford in this. Sanford, a practicing politician and a fine governor before he was a university president, grasps more of the essential values of inquiry than his refractory dons. He believes that "the opposition of the moment will be overcome by the long-range benefit to scholarship, and that's what a university is all about." He's right--or he ought to be. But in some quarter at Duke, it seems, a misconceived institutional purity is more important than the chance to offer a haven for invaluable presidential materials.
The parallel, I know, is a limited one, but it took well over a century for the United States to pardon Robert E. Lee, and but for the soldierly intervention of Gen. Grant, he would have been gladly hanged for treason by the Yankee clerisy of 1865. And from that we may draw the lesson that a healthy casting of the balance between judgment and understanding is better left to those who have tasted the temptations of power than to insulated and skittish scholars.
Obviously, it will take a long time for some scholars to pardon Richard Nixon. But pardon isn't really their office. Inquiry is. If the conditions of administrative control of the Nixon archives are reputable (and Congress will surely insist that they be), his dons should be helping, not hindering, Terry Sanford.
Consider, after all, what Duke would miss if by misguided obstruction the opportunity passed. Along with the papers, according to the custom of presidential libraries, there would surely be a gallery of mementos--the red wig borrowed by Howard Hunt from the CIA, a (minuscule) lock of H.R. Haldeman's Prussian hair, the famous tape from which 181/2 minutes were mysteriously erased and, if we are lucky, an empty glass case of a certain size memorializing in its poignant vacuum the "sinister force" that erased it.
It is a prospect only fools could refuse.