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A Real Nixon Library

February 07, 2004

The Nixon Library & Birthplace will finally live up to its name when the federal government ships the presidential papers, about 45 million of them, to the Yorba Linda site, accompanied by federal archivists who will create and run a true research library on an extraordinary administration.

It comes as even better news that the archivists also will have control over the quirky museum exhibit, which now unabashedly asserts that Watergate was mainly the doing of "left-wing" politicians and unethical journalists. The plot by presidential aides to wiretap President Nixon's political enemies and the criminal convictions that followed are given short and distorted shrift. Future visitors can expect a "more objective, historical point of view," National Archives spokeswoman Susan Cooper said.

The Watergate scandal was a watershed in American politics. The distrust of government that it engendered among voters lingers to this day. A robustly truthful telling of the scandal and its place in history is as necessary as, for instance, the Harry S. Truman presidential library's honesty about Truman's early racism, which made his later integration of the armed forces even more dramatic. All presidential libraries tend to cast their subjects in their best light, but the record itself has to be truthful.

Federal law has kept the papers out of the privately funded and operated Nixon Library since Nixon, facing impeachment charges, resigned in 1974. The concern was that, without impartial oversight, supporters would destroy key documents.

The exhibit, opened in 1990, rightly points out real accomplishments such as Nixon's landmark trip to China and the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency. But omissions and apologias for less-than-glowing moments in Nixon's life gained the facility a reputation more as an amusing oddity than as a legitimate museum. That should change with recently signed legislation allowing the National Archives to move the Nixon papers.

The documents will remain in public possession -- as at all presidential libraries -- with federal librarians protecting them and providing access. That will make the Nixon Library a true destination for scholars. Tourists will have to move fast if they want to read that Watergate was really about two unethical Washington Post reporters (who won the Pulitzer Prize for their coverage) and their "zeal to create a Watergate story."

One last touch is needed: Lose the big poster in the lobby advertising the site as a perfect rental venue for weddings, auctions and proms. With federal funding and librarians, the Nixon Library & Birthplace is going classy, and it should go all the way.

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