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Patt Morrison Asks

Timothy Naftali: Nixon's checker

A candid conversation with the director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library, now home to the new and very detailed Watergate Exhibit.

April 02, 2011|Patt Morrison

Timothy Naftali is the kind of learned guy you'd want on your team when you play "Trivial Pursuit" -- a game that, like Naftali, originated in Canada. But for years, his home and his career have been in and about the United States -- books and studies on espionage, counter-terrorism, the Cuban missile crisis, U.S. intelligence. And now he is director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library. That would be the new Nixon library, the one operated under the auspices of the National Archives. The old, private Nixon library's spin on the president, especially about the Watergate episode, prompted the feds to refuse to transfer control of tapes and documents -- until Naftali and the National Archives took over to make the library a nonpartisan scholarly and educational resource. The post he accepted five years ago requires some of the same diplomatic and historical skills he's studied, and others. The exhibit that must demonstrate all of this transparency opened this week -- the Watergate gallery, symbolized by what Naftali's holding, one of the Watergate wiretapping "bugs."

I expect everyone wants to know how Richard Nixon figured in your life before you were recruited for this job.

Nixon does not play a major role in my life. [But] you couldn't live in a country [Canada] allied with the United States, young as I was, without knowing who he was. I remember his resignation speech. We were staying with friends of my parents who happened to be named Nixon. I kid you not.

In part because of Nixon and d├ętente, you visited the Soviet Union on a student tour as a young teenager.

It was a formative visit. They tried too hard to stuff us with propaganda. This is relevant to what I do now; how do you activate the gray cells of 12-, 13-, 14-year-olds in a public building? [The Soviets took] us to these meeting rooms [to] give us a lecture on Communism and capitalism. Besides being boring, it was offensive.

How did history interest you?

A couple of things shaped my thinking. You sit with a grandparent [who endured World War II] and listen to them talk about a world turned upside down. If somebody talks with you about the concentration camps and what it's like to have your country go to war and because you're a member of a certain religious minority [you're put] in a [forced] labor camp -- my grandfather was in forced labor, and my grandfather's brother died in Auschwitz -- you can't hear these stories without [their] giving you a deep desire to know why. [And] you can't live in the United States without being interested in presidents. The way we describe our governmental system is president-heavy. We have three branches and we sometimes forget about two of them.

You worked on the presidential tapes of JFK and LBJ through the University of Virginia's Miller Center.

You think about the Kennedy tapes -- that would be a pool. The Johnson tapes are a lake. The Nixon tapes are an ocean. Richard Nixon left us 3,700 hours of tapes. John F. Kennedy left about 265 hours. I learned the presidency is almost an impossible job. No one can be trained to be president. I'm talking about the presidencies [that] have been caught like a fly in amber: Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon. We can listen to them think aloud, listen to them consider options, but more importantly we learn about time. Reading documents doesn't tell you how much time is needed to make a decision and how many decisions they have to make at the same time. [With the tapes] you are there when the president has to deal with unemployment and a riot and a foreign challenge simultaneously. And this is the kicker -- they do it on the basis of imperfect information. They don't know what they're later going to know. [But] you know. You also know, this is going to be bad. It's heartbreaking. You learn the presidency is a cacophony of choices and imperfect information.

George W. Bush's will be only the 13th presidential library.

The presidential library system is Franklin Roosevelt's gift to the United States. [Until then] presidents owned their papers -- they could dispose of them as they wished. A lot were destroyed or sold. Abraham Lincoln's collection is all over the place. The deal was the federal government would run the library, the president would deed his papers to the people -- many of them took a tax deduction -- and the government would be responsible for preserving the materials and for overseeing their release. [Initially], presidents could set up all kinds of obstacles to release. Not anymore. That era ended with Watergate.

Then is there a higher threshold of credibility for the library now that it's under the aegis of the National Archives?

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