Nixon Library undergoing changes

The LA Times covers changes to the Nixon Library, in (nearby) Yorba Linda, CA. I’ve never been. (Nor have I visited the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, either). Apparently when it was first built, the National Archive wouldn’t trust the Library to house the papers from Nixon White House years, fearing that they’d be destroyed. In a few days, the National Archives will hand over materials to the library.

The article provides a contemporary snapshot of the process whereby (controversial) current events become history. I’m old enough that the early 1970s aren’t “the old days, back when.” What began as a one-sided biased perspective in Nixon’s favor has, with the passage of time, begun to be balanced by other poitns of view. First person accounts of others involved in the Watergate events are to be part of the exhibit. The article glances on use of oral history accounts to get at what happened and why it happened (I’ll highlight ‘em below).

One of the featured activities of this last spring’s Southwest Oral History Association event in Fullerton was a visit to the Nixon Library. Now that I read more about changes there, I wonder if there was discussion of the role oral history will play in the future Watergate exhibit at the Nixon Library.

Of the changes to the library:

The Nixon Library had (yes, past tense) a Watergate exhibit—a Nixon-sympatethic version of events (Woodward and Bernstein offered bribes, the smoking gun tape heavily edited to sound innocuous).

This was history as Nixon wanted it remembered, a monument to his decades-long campaign to refurbish his name. Nixon himself approved the exhibit before the library’s 1990 opening.

“Everybody who visited it, who knew the first thing about history, thought it was a joke,” one Nixon scholar, David Greenberg, said of the Watergate gallery. “You didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.”

The exhibit has been carefully documented, and then destroyed.

“I can’t run a shrine,” says the man who ordered the demolition, Timothy Naftali, 45. Named last year as the library’s first federal director, the Harvard-trained historian is guiding the library’s shift from a privately run facility — the only modern presidential library not part of the federal system — to an institution that bears the National Archives’ imprimatur


Where Oral History comes in:

Naftali will replace the exhibit with one that incorporates interviews with participants.

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.

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.

I’m assuming (from the “interviewed” statement that these interviews are in addition to other oral histories in the Nixon archives collection

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Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on July 09, 2007 in • History
2 CommentsPermalink

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Brings back memories - I lived just a few blocks from Richard Nixon’s birthplace (where the library is) in Yorba Linda and my children attended Richard Nixon Elementary School.

I haven’t seen the library, but will be in Orange County in August and will try to stop by and visit the old neighborhood. I’d love to hear some of those oral histories.


footnoteMaven  on 07/12  at  07:41 AM

Well, I’m in the San Gabriel Valley, so if your schedule permits it, I’d love to get together for a cuppa coffee when you’re in town.

Susan A. Kitchens  on 07/18  at  10:21 AM

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