Monday, April 4, 2011


The history of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum has been more complicated than that of many presidential libraries, owing to the controversial legacy of its namesake. Nixon's personal and political papers themselves were left in turmoil following his resignation, with troves split among National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) repositories in Laguna Niguel, California and College Park, Maryland and in a collection held privately at the Nixon Library until fairly recently. Now, the papers are reunited at the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda and under the administration of NARA.

Originally, the Nixon Library and Museum was built using private funds and administered by the Nixon Foundation, which now serves in an advisory role. During the Library's tenure as a private entity, the question of how to address the Watergate period of Nixon's presidency was answered with a display that, while long on data and physically sizable, was not a welcoming space. Indeed, it resembled nothing so much as a long, dark tunnel through which there was considerable motivation to move as quickly as possible. Images of the original exhibit are available here. Information contained within the exhibit minimized the president's involvement in the affair and included references to the investigation as a "coup."

At the end of March, the Nixon Library opened a new exhibit on Watergate, with extensive background, access to oral history interviews and documents available online here. As the AP reported on March 31, the new exhibit has encountered criticism from Nixon loyalists. The Nixon Foundation, for example, filed a lengthy series of objections, although its statement upon the opening of the exhibit was quite measured and rightly points out that examination of the Museum's exhibits in their entirety will provide the most complete view of a "long and consequential career."

I was struck, however, by the comments of one conservative activist, a man named Steve Frank who worked on Nixon's 1968 presidential campaign in California. "I thought it was improper of them not to provide the whole substance of Watergate" in the original exhibit, he told the AP. "When you try to hide the facts, it makes it look worse than it is."

As a historian, I would hope that perhaps we are ready to enter a new period in Nixon scholarship, and indeed, in the scholarship of the 1960s and 1970s as a whole. This may have been the era when the "personal" became the "political," but it is time to move on into a world tinged not by emotion, but by historical analysis--of all points along the political spectrum. Facts may remain subject to interpretation, but more facts are going to lead to more informed, more scholarly, more measured interpretations. The distance of time and generation offers beneficial opportunities to take a cue from the Nixon Library and undertake broader examinations of these tumultuous years. We will likely find that the "whole substance," as Frank put it, moves us into a more integrated world of understanding.


Thomas Eric Ruthford said...

There is this one Nixon tape I found posted on-line a few years ago. It has Nixon and Haldeman in the Oval Office, with Nixon asking Haldeman to explain this sitcom he'd seen the night before. There was this long-haired hippie and his hard hat father-in-law. Nixon seemed to approve of the hard hat, but didn't think he was written well. As you go on longer, you realize they're talking about All in the Family and the hard hat is Archie Bunker.

Laura Gifford said...

That is fabulous. As it turns out I showed an episode of "All in the Family" just this afternoon in class--one in which Archie was asked to offer his "man on the street" opinion regarding Nixon's economic policies on the CBS Evening News!