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At Nixon library, the old game of hardball against a new view of Watergate

The former president's loyalists fought a revised portrayal of the scandal and sought to hold up confirmation of the National Archives director over the redesign by historian Timothy Naftali.

December 14, 2011|By Christopher Goffard, Los Angeles Times
  • Timothy Naftali, who stepped down as head of the Nixon library, is shown with an original Watergate bugging device.
Timothy Naftali, who stepped down as head of the Nixon library, is shown… (Francine Orr / Los Angeles…)

During his five-year overhaul of the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, Cold War historian Timothy Naftali won wide praise for transforming a much-ridiculed institution into a house of serious scholarship under the auspices of the National Archives and Records Administration.

Yet nobody was surprised that the private Richard Nixon Foundation — run by fierce loyalists of the former president — didn't honor Naftali when he left as director last month to join a think tank and write a book. The raw, unflinching Watergate exhibit he unveiled in March was, in the loyalists' view, deeply unkind to Nixon's legacy.

The foundation, which had run the library with private funds from its inception in 1990, had a chilly relationship with Naftali since he was appointed director in 2006 with the clear orders to make over an institution that seemed designed only to burnish Nixon's image.

Now, a fuller portrait is emerging of the campaign the loyalists waged and the tactics they employed — including the use of high-level political pressure — to thwart Naftali's efforts at the library.

Prominent in the effort to rein in the director was Ron Walker, 75, who worked as an advance man during Nixon's first White House term and now runs the foundation.

Foundation members were so offended by Naftali's work, Walker said, that some "alumni" from the Nixon White House approached Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) to place a hold on the 2009 Senate confirmation of David Ferriero as archivist of the United States.

"It was to send a signal to the archives if Tim's not gonna straighten up and fly right," Walker said.

In a phone interview, Alexander said he did place a hold on Ferriero's confirmation, but only so he could meet Ferriero before he was confirmed. He acknowledged that Walker and other former members of the Nixon White House had complained to him about Naftali.

"I know many of them were unhappy with [Naftali's] attitude," said Alexander, a veteran of the Nixon White House. "And they talked to me about it. Ron asked me to express that to the new director of the archives."

In his meeting with Ferriero, Alexander said, he suggested areas the library might focus on, such as Nixon's efforts to open up China and his environmental and civil rights legacies.

"What I said was, 'Obviously, Watergate's an important part of President Nixon's presidency, just like Monica Lewinsky is part of Bill Clinton's presidency, but the whole Clinton library isn't about Monica Lewinsky,' " Alexander said.

"I thought it was a perfectly legitimate request, that there ought to be a broader view of President Nixon," he added.

In fact, though the Watergate exhibit has received the most media attention, it has always been part of a much larger museum that explores the broader patterns of Nixon's life and career.

Ferriero, who did not return calls for comment for this story, was confirmed as the nation's top archivist in November 2009, soon after his meeting with Alexander. There is no sign that the meeting influenced Naftali's approach, and Naftali said the Watergate exhibit opened as he envisioned it, despite the foundation's panel-by-panel critique and a nine-month delay.

Pressed to respond to Walker's remarks, Naftali said he was sad that the Nixon foundation "appears not to be letting go of their anger at me."

Walker is mentioned in a May 5, 1971, exchange between Nixon and his top aide, H.R. "Bob" Haldeman, who served 18 months in prison for covering up the Watergate burglary. The conversation falls under the heading "President Nixon and Dirty Tricks" on the Nixon Library website. An audio recording captures Haldeman discussing various efforts to sabotage the political opposition, including some headed by Nixon aide Charles Colson.

Haldeman tells Nixon, "We've got some stuff that he [Colson] doesn't know anything about … through [appointments secretary Dwight] Chapin's crew and Ron Walker and the advance men."

After former Nixon aide John Taylor left as head of the Nixon foundation in 2009 to serve as a full-time Episcopal priest, the foundation fell into the hands of "Haldeman's inner circle of political operatives," Naftali said.

"Sadly, they were using the same tactics, from the same playbook," Naftali said of the foundation's campaign against him. "It's a very special tribe that has never accepted the nation's verdict on Watergate.

"What was I supposed to do," Naftali asked, "give up and let the coverup continue at the library?"

The former director said his work at the library "got difficult at times," particularly because "an intensity gap favored the Nixonians. They simply cared more about the library than most anybody else."

Stanley N. Katz, a Princeton University historian who works with the archives on the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, said the effort to pressure Naftali through a senator was "reprehensible."

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