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Nixon Presidential Library to Screen Scholars, Papers

July 08, 1990|CATHERINE GEWERTZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

YORBA LINDA — Even before the Richard M. Nixon presidential library opens, it has sparked controversy among leading scholars: Unlike other libraries, this one will screen the papers to be stored there and also may screen the researchers who study there.

Nixon's will be the first presidential library without a complete collection of the memos, letters and other documents from a president's administration. That is because his original papers are in the custody of the government, and he has chosen to photocopy only what he considers important for his library.

Although library director Hugh Hewitt says every document of any importance will be duplicated and brought to Yorba Linda, scholars wonder what might be left out.

And in a sharp departure from the practice at the eight presidential libraries that are run by the National Archives, scholars and researchers will be evaluated before they are admitted to--or turned away from--the library portion of the facility.

Hewitt told The Times that researchers will "obviously, certainly" be screened on the basis of the content and slant of their contemplated work.

"I don't think we'd ever open the doors to Bob Woodward. He's not a responsible journalist," Hewitt said, referring to the Washington Post reporter who teamed with colleague Carl Bernstein to produce Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the Watergate scandal. Hewitt said his judgment was based solely on the 1976 book, "The Final Days," in which Woodward and Bernstein wrote of the last months of Nixon's Administration. Hewitt said the book was "unsourced gossip."

The debate in the academic community over the $21-million library-museum springs from the fact that Nixon's will be the only presidential library in the nation to be operated entirely with private funds. That means that Nixon and those close to him decide how it will be run.

"Who knows what the Nixon people have screened out? As a scholar, I would distrust that system. We'll never know what's missing," said Stanley Kutler, a professor of law and history at the University of Wisconsin who just published a book on Nixon and Watergate, the scandal that in August, 1974, made him the only American president to resign from office.

"Any scholar would be wary of going to a private library when they could see a full set of the originals in Virginia," Kutler said, referring to the complete collection of Nixon's presidential papers, which by law are kept in a government archive in Alexandria, Va. It is open to the public.

Library officials contend that both the street-level museum, which opens July 20, and the underground library, which will open in 1991, will offer an unflinchingly honest and complete account of Nixon's life, and as such, will be crucial research tools for any bona fide scholar. They say dozens of researchers have already expressed interest in using the library.

"That library is going to contain absolutely everything: favorable, not favorable, Watergate, everything," said William E. Simon, former treasury secretary under Nixon and president of the library foundation. "Academics and historians have always hated Nixon. What they're saying about the library is shibboleth and it's not true."

Skepticism about the library comes not only from Nixon's critics, but from such renowned presidential scholars as James MacGregor Burns and from Nixon's supporters, such as Martin Anderson, a senior fellow at Stanford University's conservative Hoover Institution and a former special assistant in the Nixon White House.

Anderson said that the "only way (the library can) get credibility in the academic world" is to have all of Nixon's presidential documents and make them available to everyone. Anderson is among those who believe that Nixon's comeback from ignominy is justified and long overdue, given his achievements in domestic and foreign policy. But he worries that assembling an incomplete archive and imposing restrictions on who may use it will hamper Nixon's bid for legitimacy.

"The objective use of the (presidential) papers is critical to that process," said Anderson, who served as President Ronald Reagan's economic policy adviser. "Let the gates open. The total story is what's important and that overshadows all the smaller parts, complete with their mistakes."

Woodward, who is now the Post's assistant managing editor for investigations, said the suggestion that he--and possibly others--will be kept out "demonstrates that the library will be part of a continuing cover-up" of Nixon's history.

"Political neutrality is the essence of maintaining presidential documents," Woodward said. "To let the tensions and angers of a long-ago era (restrict access) is pathetic and silly. It's the old enemies-list mentality. That was part of the problem in the first place. You have to deal with your critics."

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