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Direction of Nixon Library Debated

Presidents: At stake in sisters' dispute is whether focus will be tourism or research.

March 22, 2002|PHIL WILLON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At the entrance to the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace, a sign announcing that the building is available for "special events, including weddings" lets visitors know this presidential library is like no other.

The Yorba Linda institution is the only one of America's 11 presidential libraries that does not take taxpayer money. It's also the only one that isn't home to its president's White House papers.

When the sandstone library opened in 1990, its curators boasted the library was as much about tourism as scholarship--and the last 12 years have essentially proved them right.

The battle now brewing between Nixon's two daughters over control of an $18-million bequest to the Nixon Foundation could help determine whether it remains largely a museum and tourist attraction or becomes the more serious academic clearinghouse on the Nixon presidency that scholars have longed for.

The bequest was made four years ago by a longtime Nixon friend, the late Charles "Bebe" Rebozo. Julie Nixon Eisenhower wants the funds to be controlled by the foundation's board of directors, saying it's the most professional way to manage the money. Tricia Nixon Cox wants a three-person committee made up of the sisters and Nixon friend Robert Abplanalp to oversee the foundation's gift, as she says Rebozo's will instructs.

The library is in the midst of a $10-million expansion, though its main goal is not about boosting Nixon scholarship. The centerpiece of the project is a replica of the White House East Room--home of Tricia Cox's wedding reception--part of a banquet facility that would host bar mitzvahs, weddings and special events.

Many historians hope the Rebozo bequest will help the library to reach for more ambitious academic goals and finally pave the way for Nixon's White House papers to be transferred from the National Archives outside Washington to Yorba Linda.

"Right now, it's a hollow library," said Richard Reeves, author of the recent bestseller "President Nixon: A Man Alone." "They've got to decide whether it's going to be a presidential library or a roadside museum."

Officials haven't determined how they would spend the Rebozo money once the court battle between the sisters is resolved. The library foundation took the issue to court in California and Florida, hoping to break what they described as a hopeless stalemate that threatened to deprive the library of the bequest.

Library officials--including the sisters--hope the money can help create what has always been their long-term goal: creating the premier research facility not just for the Nixon presidency but for the post-World War II and Vietnam eras as well.

"We hope it can become the preeminent center for the study of the Cold War," library director John Taylor said.

Taylor said the Nixon library already houses a "gem of a collection" of Nixon's personal and political papers from his years before his ascent to the presidency, and also the two decades after he left office.

Still, without Nixon's voluminous collection of White House papers and material--which included everything from the infamous Oval Office tapes exposed in the Watergate scandal to the details of his historic visit to China--the Nixon library can never live up to the collections in other presidential libraries, he said.

The library's difficulties in getting the presidential papers are rooted in the Watergate scandal that forced Nixon from office.

Shortly after Nixon's resignation in 1974, Congress decreed that the General Services Administration, the parent agency of the National Archives, should seize all his White House recordings and papers to guarantee that Nixon would not destroy them.

The Nixon collection is now held in the National Archives annex in College Park, Md.

Until he died in 1994, Nixon fought bitterly to reclaim his presidential papers, and in 2000 the federal government agreed to pay $18million to Nixon's estate to settle claims that those materials were improperly seized.

During settlement discussions, attorneys for the Nixon estate and officials from the National Archives tried to hammer out an accord that would have created a taxpayer-funded home for the papers in Yorba Linda. Those talks broke down, however, and have yet to be revived.

Moving the collection to Yorba Linda remains a priority for the library, Taylor said. However, both he and officials at the National Archives doubt that will happen soon.

"There are no discussions currently between the National Archives and the Nixon Library, and we don't anticipate any," said Susan Cooper, spokeswoman for the federal agency.

Moving the collection would be expensive, because a new library would have to be built and a staff of federal archivists would have to be hired to maintain the papers. Traditionally, construction of the library buildings is privately funded.

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