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A new take on Watergate at Nixon library

Where the old exhibit was designed to burnish the 37th president's legacy, the new one is a raw and detailed look at the scandal that drove him from office.

April 01, 2011|By Christopher Goffard, Los Angeles Times
  • The new Watergate exhibit was unveiled Thursday at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda. The exhibit includes a section titled "Dirty Tricks and Political Espionage."
The new Watergate exhibit was unveiled Thursday at the Richard Nixon Presidential… (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)

After decades of being derided as little more than a legacy-and-curio shop designed to burnish Richard Nixon's image at the expense of the historical record, the Yorba Linda library bearing his name has unveiled a raw and detailed look at the scandal that drove him from office.

The $500,000 Watergate exhibit, four years in the making, features interactive screens, White House tapes and 131 taped interviews that replace the perfunctory, much-ridiculed narrative of Watergate that Nixon himself approved when the library opened with private funds in 1990.

Where the old exhibit featured a heavily edited version of the "smoking gun" tape that sealed Nixon's resignation in 1974, the new exhibit presents it in full. Where the old text contended that a "mechanical malfunction" explained the infamous 18 1/2-minute gap in a key Nixon conversation, visitors will now be told it was probably a deliberate erasure. And where the old text portrayed the scandal as a "coup" engineered by Nixon's enemies, the new narrative places the Watergate burglary within a broader pattern of dirty tricks, spying and sabotage by the Nixon White House.

Timothy Naftali, director of the federally run library, said Thursday the exhibit reflected "our self-confidence as a people" and a democracy unafraid of examining "evidence of its own wrongdoing." At its core, Naftali said, the Watergate story was about "the self-correcting mechanism of our Constitution when one of the branches exceeds its authority."

The changes did not come without a fight from stalwarts of the 37th president, a seminal figure in postwar California politics whose reputation remains a battleground. Last summer, when the loyalists — some of them former Nixon aides — got a glimpse of how the National Archives-run library planned to portray the Watergate scandal, they responded with a 158-page memo assailing the proposed exhibit line by line, panel by panel.

The Nixon Foundation decried the exhibit, which was originally scheduled to open last July, as being "judgmental," with a "gross imbalance" and a "lack of context."

DOCUMENT: Nixon stalwarts' 158-page critique

The foundation called for the removal of a section titled "Dirty Tricks and Political Espionage" and suggested "something complimentary" be said about Nixon's top aide, H.R. Haldeman, who served 18 months in prison for covering up the Watergate burglary. Another suggestion: Visitors should be told that warrantless wiretaps and IRS audits of political opponents originated with previous presidents.

The memo, written by foundation president Ronald Walker, a former Nixon aide, complained that the exhibit would be "substantially more negative" in tone than that of the Kennedy, Carter and Reagan libraries in handling controversial aspects of their namesakes' presidencies.

The foundation's complaints resulted in a nine-month delay but "no changes of fact and no substantive changes in perspective," said Naftali, a Harvard-trained historian. He said he did act on the foundation's contention that visitors should hear more of Nixon's voice, and included clips of Nixon's reflections on Watergate during an interview with journalist David Frost.

The "Dirty Tricks" section remained, and Haldeman gets no plaudits. Secret taping occurred in the White House as far back as Franklin Roosevelt's presidency, the new text explains, yet adds, "This size and scope of President Nixon's system, however, was unprecedented."

As the exhibit tells it, the Watergate story really began not with the break-in at the Democratic national headquarters at Washington's Watergate complex in June 1972 but a year earlier, with Daniel Ellsberg's leak of a secret government study of the Vietnam War known as the Pentagon Papers. That prompted the Nixon White House to establish a secret group of operatives known as the Plumbers, who burglarized the office of Ellsberg's psychiatrist to find his file.

One of the exhibit's interviews features Dwight Chapin, Nixon's appointments secretary, claiming that Nixon was present when Haldeman ordered the establishment of a dirty-tricks unit for the 1972 presidential campaign. It was Chapin who hired Donald Segretti, a Nixon operative who engaged in the sabotage of Democrats.

"The Nixon Foundation fought tooth and nail to prevent this," Watergate historian Stanley Kutler said of the exhibit. "The Archives was bending over backward to be accommodating and respectful" to the foundation, he said. "It got to be like a nuisance suit. 'If not this, then what about that?' Any fool could see what the end result would be."

In June 1990, a month before the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum opened, Bob Bostock, who wrote the text of the original exhibit, sent a memo to Nixon seeking his approval of the language.

"My ultimate goal in this exhibit is this: That people will walk away from it, shaking their heads, wondering how the nation ever let such a great president be taken away from them," he wrote.

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