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Nixon's library to go by the book

An exhibit telling his version of Watergate is the first to go as the National Archives takes over the facility.

July 08, 2007|Christopher Goffard | Times Staff Writer

Yet from the start, the library had trouble being taken seriously. Its first director, Hugh Hewitt, announced that researchers deemed unfriendly would be banned from the archives, singling out the Washington Post's Bob Woodward as a candidate for exclusion. Scholars cried foul; Hewitt revoked the plan.

What's more, the library possessed only Nixon's pre- and post-presidential papers. In 1974, Congress mandated that his White House materials be kept in the Washington area, amid fears that Watergate-related documents would be destroyed.

For years, the library enjoyed a reputation less as a sanctuary for scholars than as a roadside attraction, a place Nixon scholar Stanley Kutler derided as "another Southern California theme park," adding: "Its level of reality is only slightly better than Disneyland."

When scholar Greenberg visited the Yorba Linda library to research his book "Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image," he found the staff in the reading room professional and helpful. But when he ventured into the exhibits depicting Nixon's career, he found "an incredibly distorted, biased, pro-Nixon view of his presidency that distorted facts about Watergate."

Described by some scholars as the greatest constitutional crisis since the Civil War, the scandal got its name from the break-in of Democratic national headquarters at Washington's Watergate building in June 1972. Though the White House downplayed it as "a third-rate burglary," it proved part of a pattern -- one established early in Nixon's presidency -- to use government agencies and independent groups to spy on and harass perceived enemies.

As the drama unfolded, a Watergate grand jury named Nixon as an "unindicted co-conspirator." Nixon's political support collapsed after a tape emerged in which he ordered his top aide, H.R. Haldeman, to have the CIA stop the FBI's probe of Watergate on the pretext of national security. Facing impeachment, he resigned.

Nixon would describe the scandal as "politics pure and simple" -- a campaign by Democrats and other enemies to reverse the will of voters. It was a perspective the museum vigorously advanced, instructing visitors, among other things, that a "mechanical malfunction" explained the notorious 18 1/2 -minute gap of one Nixon conversation, though a team of experts appointed by a federal judge ruled out that explanation.

Taylor, the Nixon Foundation director, acknowledges that the Watergate exhibit was "in places too polemical" and said he supports Naftali's efforts to create a "more neutral" account. Still, he remains unapologetic about the original. "It is not true that you will find people at the Nixon Library abjectly in sackcloth and ashes because of the way it was before."

Taylor said Nixon skipped the Watergate gallery at the library's 1990 opening and isn't sure if he saw it on the two other occasions he visited. "And if he didn't, I wouldn't have blamed him," Taylor said.

After lobbying by Nixon's family and loyalists, Congress agreed in 2004 to let the Yorba Linda library join the official presidential library system, and the library promised "more strictly factual exhibits."

But the legacy of distrust lingered, prompting 16 scholars to send a letter to Congress protesting the release of Nixon's White House archives to the library. "I thought it was a terrible idea for a long time," said Greenberg, who was among those scholars.

Then, last year, the National Archives announced that Naftali would be the library's first federal director. That "changed things 180 degrees," Greenberg said, adding: "But I'm sure it won't be easy for Naftali either in his new job."

Revisiting a scandal

Naftali was no stranger to the library's reputation. Soon after his arrival, he stood in the Watergate gallery and pronounced it "unfortunate," adding: "This is a good explication of how Nixon viewed Watergate. The trouble is, it gives the impression it's history."

In its place, he promises "a 360 degree look at the issue," with a row of plasma screens featuring oral accounts of those who played a role in the drama. The account will begin, he says, a year before the break-in itself -- with Daniel Ellsberg's 1971 leak of the Pentagon Papers, a secret government study of the Vietnam War. The Nixon administration responded by creating the so-called plumbers, who broke into the Beverly Hills office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist in search of his file.

Naftali interviewed the man who helped engineer the Beverly Hills break-in, former plumbers boss Egil "Bud" Krogh, who was indicted for perjury in connection with it. He interviewed Jeb Magruder, the White House aide who supervised the Watergate break-in, served seven months in prison, and who later said he heard Nixon himself authorize the burglary.

He interviewed former Deputy Atty. Gen. William Ruckelshaus, who resigned amid the Oct. 1973 "Saturday Night Massacre" rather than obey a White House order to fire the Watergate special prosecutor who had demanded Nixon's secretly recorded tapes.

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