WASHINGTON — Historian Stanley Kutler was at a National Archives warehouse recently, searching through newly released papers from the presidency of Richard M. Nixon and finding "terrific" stuff that "explains why Nixon has been fighting so hard to keep this suppressed."
Kutler, a University of Wisconsin professor who is writing a book called "The Age of Watergate," was approached by news reporters, who were considerably less excited about what they were finding in the massive files.
"What have you got that's hot?" they asked. Kutler, knowing that what was hot to him was not to them, had nothing to offer. "They're always looking for the smoking gun, but there's no such thing. That's not the way things work."
What historians find so fascinating in the papers are details that may appear superfluous individually but, when taken together and examined more closely, provide new insight into the nature of Nixon's presidency, including his highly participatory style of management and his penchant for operating as if always plunged in crisis.
And, despite controversial gaps in the information, the papers have led some scholars to revise their appraisals of Nixon's record, particularly in domestic policy areas that have been long overshadowed by Watergate.
Debate Among Scholars
"Things work in an incremental sense. What these papers give us is an incremental sense. If you want to know how the campaign of 1972 was directed, you don't go to one memo; you look at papers over three or four months and you see clear patterns emerging," Kutler said. He has found, among other patterns, Nixon "perpetually campaigning" and "absolutely" on top of things.
Along with enthusiasm, the papers have generated much debate among scholars in recent months as 2.7 million documents went on public view after years of legal resistance by Nixon and 29 former aides.
Indiana University Prof. Joan Hoff-Wilson, an improbably ardent fan of Nixon, has been carrying on a bit of a feud with Kutler over how to interpret the legacy of the only U.S. President forced to resign.
Hoff-Wilson, an anti-Nixon radical at UC Berkeley in the 1960s who still has never voted for a major party's presidential nominee, has done what she calls a "surprising turnaround" on Nixon that will be displayed in her coming book, "Nixon Without Watergate."
She said that the Nixon papers elaborately document a series of domestic reforms, from proposed welfare legislation to civil rights initiatives, that are "making many liberals nostalgic, wishing they had some of Nixon's legislation to kick around again. I think his domestic achievements will be longer lasting than his foreign policy successes."
Scoffs at Portrayal
Kutler, whom Hoff-Wilson tweaks for "beating Watergate to death," scoffs at her heroic portrayal of the six-year Nixon presidency, which ended abruptly Aug. 9, 1974.
"Anybody who goes around saying those papers show how Nixon was a great President--let me tell you something: What those papers tell us conclusively is that the central fact of his Administration was Watergate," he said. Abuses of power "were going on long before the break-in" at Democratic headquarters ignited the scandal, he added. "To resort to Shakespeare, Watergate is a spot that will not out."
Meanwhile, University of Maryland historian Hugh Graham, who is completing a book on the evolution of federal civil rights policy from 1960 to 1972, said he has found so much good material in the Nixon files that he has already added six chapters to the 12 he had planned.
"I thought I had the book mostly written, with the Kennedy and Johnson archives at its heart," Graham said, "but last December the Nixon papers opened up, to the astonishment of everybody.
Chapters on Women
"They are extremely rich. I had planned no chapters on women--it was going to be exclusively about race. Now I've got two on women," he said, including a description of Nixon's backing of the proposed equal rights amendment.
"Then I have an enormous chapter on the 'Philadelphia plan,' " a pioneer affirmative action program pushed through by Nixon despite virulent opposition from conservatives, Graham said. "I'm going wild."
Dissenting from such euphoria, historian Stephen E. Ambrose said he has found the Nixon papers "terribly disappointing" largely because the former President has blocked the release of about 150,000 pages, claiming the need to protect personal privacy and privileged communications with aides.
Nixon's objections, permitted by government regulations developed after long legal fights, could be overturned by Archives officials and the courts, but that may take years.
"I want to see memos that come up to the President--what he writes on them, what he sends down for action. That is what is generally not available," said Ambrose, who has written biographies of Nixon and former President Dwight D. Eisenhower. He is working on a second Nixon volume entitled "Nixon: The Triumph and Tragedy of a Politician."