Future of Nixon Site Is Clouded by Dispute : Library May Not Get Key Papers

November 29, 1987|MARIANN HANSEN | Times Staff Writer

Gerald R. Ford has a presidential library in Ann Arbor, Mich. Jimmy Carter has one in his home state of Georgia. And Ronald Reagan hopes to break ground for his in Ventura County next fall.

But Richard M. Nixon, who preceded all three men to the White House, has yet to find a home for the mementoes of his stormy presidency.

This week, the City of Yorba Linda is expected to announce the details of a legal agreement between the Orange County city and the Richard Nixon Presidential Archives Foundation to build the library, said John C. Whitaker, executive director of the foundation.

Papers in Custody

But the long-awaited Richard Nixon Presidential Library stands to be the first presidential library without presidential papers.

The federal government took custody of Nixon's presidential materials--44 million pages and 4,000 hours of tape recordings--when he tried to have some of them destroyed.

They now sit in a warehouse in Alexandria, Va., where national archivists sift through, removing classified information.

Nixon and members of his former Administration have fought the National Archives to prevent public release of selected parts of the materials, particularly those known as the Special White House Papers from the Watergate period.

The eight other presidential libraries are operated by the National Archives, but Nixon's initially will be privately operated.

"The question isn't whether Nixon can operate his own library, but what's going to go in it?" said a former House subcommittee staff member familiar with presidential libraries.

Materials Available

According to Nixon Foundation director Whitaker, the library initially will include Nixon's vice presidential papers, all his personal papers since he's been out of office, manuscripts for his six books and his personal White House diaries.

The foundation will contract with a museum company to plan and build the exhibits, which will probably focus on Nixon's work with China, the Middle East, arms control, and domestic issues, Whitaker said.

"There will not be a lot of glass containers with dusty items in them," he said.

And there will be a section on Watergate. "The (former) President feels it was part of his presidency," Whitaker said.

Nixon himself, when he toured a proposed site in San Clemente four years ago, told the media that the museum would not ignore Watergate.

"The Watergate episode of course is part of the history of the times . . . (it) will be seen in perspective, and that's the way it should be," he said then.

The foundation anticipates that the library and museum will bring 500,000 visitors to Yorba Linda, Nixon's birthplace, each year. It will be built with $25 million in private donations.

Inclusion of Watergate

Four years ago, when San Clemente was the prospective site for the Nixon library, officials there asked the Nixon Foundation to sign a written agreement to ensure that the facility would provide a balanced presentation of Nixon's presidency and include items on Watergate.

But Yorba Linda, which recently won the library after San Clemente delayed approval for four years, has not considered a similar agreement.

"Any presidential library is going to have a certain bias. We're not, at least thus far, involved in the particular content of the library," City Manager Art Simonian said.

Some critics have taken the bias charge even further, claiming that presidential libraries are empty, fake monuments that deify former Presidents, John Stewart, acting director of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, said.

"I think they (presidential libraries) have all done very well in not exaggerating and not blowing the Presidents out of proportion," Stewart said. "But just the fact that you have an institution on the life of one person, that's a biased statement. You're coming to a conclusion about this person--that he was great enough to have this institution."

Emphasis on Nostalgia

Most people visit presidential libraries because they liked the former President, he said. For example, many admittedly visit the Kennedy Library for a nostalgia trip, "and they usually get it," Stewart said.

Although they are called libraries, it is the museum that attracts the visitors. The Kennedy museum presents the family history, from 1840 when Kennedy's grandparents immigrated to the United States from Ireland.

By far the most popular exhibit is the collection of film clips from Kennedy's press conferences, Stewart said.

Similarly, the Jimmy Carter Presidential library in Atlanta, which opened Oct. 1, 1986, offers a video taped question-and-answer section, where the visitor can select from a series of 100 questions, punch a button, and view Carter's pre-recorded answer. (Whitaker said the Nixon museum will offer something similar).

The Carter library has several exhibits on his presidency--such as the Middle East, Camp David talks, and the Iran hostage crisis--and the office of the presidency in general, as well as a replica of Carter's Oval Office.

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