The Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace in Yorba Linda has long been the most kicked-around of presidential libraries, and nothing invited more ridicule than the dim, narrow room purporting to describe the scandal that drove its namesake from office.
Venturing into that room, visitors learned that Watergate, which provoked a constitutional crisis and became an enduring byword for abuses of executive power, was really a "coup" engineered by Nixon enemies. The exhibit accused Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein -- without evidence -- of "offering bribes" to further their famous coverage.
Most conspicuous was a heavily edited, innocent-seeming version of the "smoking gun" tape of June 23, 1972, the resignation-clinching piece of evidence in which Nixon and his top aide are heard conspiring to thwart the FBI probe of Watergate.
This was history as Nixon wanted it remembered, a monument to his decades-long campaign to refurbish his name. Nixon himself approved the exhibit before the library's 1990 opening.
"Everybody who visited it, who knew the first thing about history, thought it was a joke," one Nixon scholar, David Greenberg, said of the Watergate gallery. "You didn't know whether to laugh or cry."
In late March, however, workers roped off the Watergate gallery and methodically began to destroy it. Armed with hammers, a crowbar, a screw gun and a Sawzall, they yanked big display cabinets out of the floor, sliced through tough fiberboard panels, detached more than 100 fluorescent lighting tubes and removed the long strips of plexiglass that had sandwiched text transparencies.
The exhibit, which stood for 17 years, had been designed to last, and the demolition took two weeks. "It was as permanent as you can build it," said museum Curator Olivia Anastasiadis. Workers piled debris onto a cart and rolled it out back, where it filled two gigantic Dumpsters.
"I can't run a shrine," says the man who ordered the demolition, Timothy Naftali, 45. Named last year as the library's first federal director, the Harvard-trained historian is guiding the library's shift from a privately run facility -- the only modern presidential library not part of the federal system -- to an institution that bears the National Archives' imprimatur.
In effect, that means transforming the black sheep of presidential libraries into an institution that will eventually be entrusted with the vast trove of Nixon's White House material that the government seized in the 1970s, fearing its destruction.
A stylishly dressed, excitable man possessed of rapid speech and animated hands, Naftali is standing with a cup of coffee in what the wreckers left of the Watergate exhibit: an empty room, the walls big and blank and coated with primer. For Naftali, a Cold War scholar and expert in presidential recordings, it represents a cleared canvas.
Several months ago, Naftali approached the Nixon Foundation's director, John Taylor, a former Nixon aide who helped write the zealously pro-Nixon text of the original Watergate exhibit, and announced his intention of tearing the exhibit down.
"I said, 'In order to start the process of reforming...' " Naftali says, then chooses a more diplomatic word: " '\o7Changing\f7 the museum, I need to begin with Watergate.' "
Naftali, who gave up his job at the University of Virginia to take this post, presents himself as neither a hater of the 37th president nor an apologist for him. Although he freely dispenses political opinions -- in his blog, he has inveighed against warrantless spying and nominated President Bush as "one of the worst presidents of the last century" -- he is tactfully tight-lipped about Nixon.
He will happily tick off Nixonian achievements -- in foreign policy, the environment, civil rights -- that he wants visitors to learn about at the library. Yet asked for a general assessment of Nixon, the kind scholars love to give, he smiles and says, "Who?"
Naftali, and no longer the fierce Nixon loyalists, will control the library's archives and exhibits. But the first major task he has set himself is not an easy one.
How do you tell a story as ugly as Watergate in a building that bears Nixon's name? How do you chronicle a president's most shameful episode just a few yards from the clapboard farmhouse where he was born and the black marble gravestone he lies beneath? What do you put in, and what do you leave out, in a city where his birthday is a holiday?
"You're going to have the story of dirty tricks -- you have to," Naftali says. The challenge: to hew to the historical record and yet somehow "be respectful of parts of a community that may view it in a different way."
When the $21-million library opened with private funds in July 1990, amid trumpets and a crowd of 50,000 that included Nixon and three other presidents, one biographer called the occasion "a symbolic redemption" for the president who had resigned in disgrace in 1974.