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The Region

Being Less Than Perfectly Clear

History: Nixon library offers a sanitized view of Watergate on the 30th anniversary.

June 14, 2002|MIKE ANTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At first blush, it would seem akin to the John F. Kennedy presidential library taking note of his relationship with Marilyn Monroe. Or the Ronald Reagan library calling attention to the anniversary of the Iran-Contra scandal.

At the privately run Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace in Yorba Linda, though, the watershed event that led to the fall of the 37th president is being embraced--the library is marking Monday's 30th anniversary of the Watergate break-in.

In a "media advisory" released this week, the library invited calls on the June 17, 1972, burglary--a public outreach that struck some, including one of the library's contact names, as a "misplaced seeking of publicity."

"I don't think the old man would have sanctioned [the media alert]," said political consultant Ken Khachigian, a Nixon confidant and member of the foundation that oversees the library. "It would have been the last thing that he would do."

Thirty years after G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt planned the break-in into offices of the Democratic National Committee, Watergate still intrigues the nation.

Pundits and players of the time are popping up on television gab fests. The phone has been busy at the U.S. National Archives' Nixon Project in College Park, Md.--so busy that officials decided to give journalists a "one-time opportunity" to see and photograph police evidence taken from one of the most infamous crime scenes in history.

For two hours Thursday, journalists were treated to a rare glimpse of the address book containing Hunt's White House phone number and the burglars' tools.

"There is really only one Watergate," said Susan Cooper, a spokeswoman for the National Archives.

But there's more than one Nixon archive. Nixon's presidential papers are kept by the National Archives. The Yorba Linda institution, which doesn't take taxpayer money, houses millions of pages of documents from Nixon's years outside the White House.

The facility, which opened in 1990, has been criticized by some historians as little more than a tourist attraction that relies on rental income from banquets, weddings and bar mitzvahs. With only one full-time archivist, much of the material there has yet to be cataloged.

Its Watergate exhibit is in keeping with Nixon's attempt after leaving office to convince the public he had no prior knowledge of the break-in, didn't try to cover it up, and was hounded from office by political enemies and journalists critical of his role in the Vietnam War.

The library's public copy of the so-called "smoking gun" tape, which showed that Nixon tried to stop the federal investigation of Watergate, is heavily edited and laced with added material that attempts to explain away his words.

"Watergate anniversaries are media celebrations," said library director John Taylor, explaining why he was calling attention to the anniversary. "The media see Watergate as its finest hour."

He maintains Nixon's biggest failing was "not being sufficiently ruthless enough cleaning house" after the burglary.

"People should stop looking at Watergate as the moral and ethical failure of one man and begin to look at it as the failure of a management system," Taylor said.

To historian and author Irv Gellman, who is working on the second of his series of Nixon biographies, the library's effort to downplay Nixon's role in Watergate is in keeping with "the whole shtick of that place."

"That's just odd," Gellman said of the library marking the occasion by offering to set up interviews. "They're trying to spin

"Their main goal should be to run a library and be a research source.... To say, 'If you want Nixon's point of view call us'--it's very unusual."

What Gellman calls spin, Nixon library spokeswoman Arianna Barrios-Lochrie calls "balance." The library planned to run an ad in Sunday's Los Angeles Times encouraging people to visit and get both sides of the Watergate story.

"There's so much negative that's been written on Richard Nixon, we can't afford to ignore it," she said. "We're just saying people deserve to hear both sides."

Khachigian doesn't dispute that. He just wishes that he and other board members were consulted about the library's invitation to the media.

"We should neither run from it or toward it," Khachigian said of the legacy of Watergate. "Any anniversary of June 17th is a watershed, and its going to be observed one way or another.... It's a little odd to see some advisory out there saying, 'Gee, in case you forgot....' "

*

Times staff writer David Haldane contributed to this report.

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