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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

He interviewed Nixon appointments secretary Dwight Chapin, who hired Donald Segretti, a Nixon campaign operative -- and now an Irvine attorney -- who engaged in sabotage of Democrats. He recorded the account of Nixon speechwriter Ray Price, who contributed to Nixon's 1974 resignation speech.

The exhibit will feature "snippets, but some people will say the snippets will be taken out of context," Naftali says, adding that to obviate the concern he will make the full interviews easily accessible.

Along with the first-person accounts, there will be selections from White House tapes, scanned archives, bits of news broadcasts and footage of the Watergate hearings.

The gallery will be "an interactive, self-curated experience," he says. "You'll be able to navigate through this story yourself. It'll be up to the visitor to decide, 'Did Nixon order this? Did he order the coverup? What were the abuses of power? What role did partisan politics play in Richard Nixon's downfall? What role did personality play?' I'm not going to answer those questions. It's not up to me."

The exhibit will raise questions, he says, instead of providing "some kind of closure that's artificial." He wants to avoid, as he puts it, "replacing one form of didacticism with another," as well as "the schoolmarm problem, the wagging finger."

It will also steer clear of historical analysis. "If you brought in historians, you'd have to have one on the left, one on the right," leading to "a crossfire situation where you confuse people."

The library will officially enter the federal system Wednesday with the title of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library & Museum. After congress provides funding for a 15,000-square-foot addition, the National Archives plans to send the library copies of 4,000 hours of Nixon's presidential tapes, plus 42 million pages of presidential materials now being held in College Park, Md.

Foundation keeps a role

The Nixon Foundation will continue to rent out the Yorba Linda building's amphitheater and its reproduction of the White House East Room for weddings, bar mitzvahs and other events, which will help fund exhibits and programs.

The foundation will also continue to run the museum's gift shop, where visitors can purchase a stunning variety of Nixon kitsch: Nixon bookmarks, Nixon mouse pads, Nixon sparkle-lamps, even pens that feature a tiny portrait of Nixon and Elvis Presley, gripping hands as they float together through the pen's liquid center.

Items with the president and Presley are a perennial best-seller, says merchandise director Ric Leczel on a recent tour of the gift shop.

On a shelf nearby sit copies of a surprising new addition to the store: Woodward and Bernstein's "All the President's Men," an account of uncovering Watergate.

"It's part of the new feeling around here. Put the cards on the table, let people make up their own minds," Leczel says, adding that it has not sold well. "It's Orange County."

Naftali, for his part, says he had no direct hand in getting the Woodward and Bernstein book into the museum store, but is glad to see it. "Isn't that nice?" he says. "I like to think there's a certain wind blowing."

Nixon's account of the scandal that ruined his presidency has lost, even here in the shadow of his birthplace and grave, but it won't be lost to posterity.

Before he had the Watergate gallery ripped out, Naftali ordered workers to take digital photographs of every image, every line of text. He will display them on a plasma screen when the new gallery opens in a few months. He sees it as an important window into the 37th president's mind, Nixon's version of history now a historical artifact itself.

christopher.goffard

@latimes.com

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