יום שני, 5 בספטמבר 2016

Two Decades after His Death, Richard Nixon Is Still Setting Precedents


The 37th president’s renovated library could mark a new standard for honesty over hagiography.

Forty-two years after the 37th president resigned in disgrace, and 22 years after he died, there really is a “new Nixon” at last—a new Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, that is, with radically reimagined interactive exhibits telling the story of his life and presidency in the first comprehensive overhaul since it opened in 1990.

What’s more, library officials say the new exhibits will move beyond the blatant hagiography that characterized the old Nixon library (and that infuses most presidential libraries to one degree or another) to tell history whole. That means a forthright look at Watergate, the bombing of Cambodia and other negative aspects of the Nixon legacy, amounting to an important victory for professional historians who have long battled the band of Nixon loyalists who built the library as a private institution.

Based on a sneak preview tour that museum officials recently conducted for MARCA POLITICA, the early signs are encouraging. “I don’t think anyone can argue that it’s a shrine,” Ken Khachigian, a former aide to Nixon and Ronald Reagan and a longtime former Nixon Foundation board member, told me.

He may have a point. For decades, the federal government fought with Nixon’s heirs over control of his presidential papers, before the two sides finally agreed in 2007 to the system of joint stewardship that prevails at other presidential libraries. The library’s first government director, historian Timothy Naftali, won praise from scholars and journalists for a candid and critical update of the museum’s Watergate exhibit in 2011. But he also angered some leaders of the private Nixon Foundation, which built the library and raises funds for its endowment, and he left soon after. Naftali’s post remained vacant until last year even as plans for the renovation proceeded, to the consternation of some historians who feared pro-Nixon bias.

But William Baribault, a longtime Southern California business executive who was named president and CEO of the library foundation in 2014, says the museum’s Watergate exhibit will be word-for-word the same as Naftali’s controversial one, which for the first time included the full “smoking gun” tape in which Nixon’s involvement in the Watergate cover-up was apparent.

“A 50-year career shouldn’t be limited to just focus on two years,” Baribault says. “Here a story is told about the other 48 years,” including Nixon’s creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, his signing of Title IX prohibiting gender discrimination in federally funded education and sports programs, and his failed proposals for universal health insurance and welfare reform—which would be seen as wildly liberal in today’s Republican Party, but which Nixon adopted to capture the center in his 1972 reelection campaign.

One reason for the changed attitude is that new leaders are in place at both the foundation, which is paying for the $15 million renovation with private funds, and the library, which is controlled by the National Archives and Records Administration, whose internal experts and outside historian consultants have approved the changes. Both camps say they take as their credo Bill Clinton’s words at Nixon’s funeral, which appear prominently in the library’s lobby: “May the day of judging President Nixon on anything else than his entire career come to a close.”

“We’re turning a page,” says Khachigian, who was once squarely in the anti-Naftali camp. “We’ve put the resources together to tell the story that we always knew was there, and in a narrative that’s not celebratory or dealt with in a worshipful way. It’s a pretty straightforward story.”


Beginning in mid-October, visitors to the museum’s permanent galleries will be plunged straight into the tumult of the 1968 campaign and the 5½ years of Nixon’s roller-coaster presidency, before stepping back in time to learn the story of his early life and rise to power. Static wall photos and old-fashioned glass cases will give way to large video screens and projected images of Nixon’s handwritten jottings on yellow legal pads, with his overheard voice in the air.

Still, the final look of the museum—and how well or not it will reflect the harsh reality of Nixon’s presidency, the only one to end in a resignation—is not yet clear. The full text of the new exhibits had not yet been installed during MARCA POLITICAS tour of the galleries, and a library foundation spokesman said that the names of four outside historians retained by the archives to review the renovation would be revealed only when the work is completely done. David Ferriero, the archivist of the United States, did not return an email seeking comment and an Archives spokesman explained that Susan Donius, the Archives official who oversees the presidential library system, was on leave and not available for an interview.

But both Baribault and Michael Ellzey, a veteran municipal executive who has run public parks and cultural agencies in San Jose, San Francisco and Irvine, Calif., and was appointed the library’s permanent director last year, say the goal of the new museum is not to provide visitors with answers about Nixon’s legacy, but to pose questions that they can answer for themselves. In that vein, visitors will be encouraged to stop at an exhibit called “Tough Choices,” an interactive station where they can play the role of adviser to the president on his decisions to aid Israel in the Yom Kippur war, bomb Cambodia and end the draft.

“It’s an opportunity to participate in the decision-making process and see how you rank with the president—and with other museumgoers,” Ellzey said, adding that his standard is “an open and honest presentation” of Nixon’s career.

To that end, a display on Vietnam features three revolving signs with differing views of the war, two in opposition, one in support. One sign reads, “Get Out Now,” and when visitors turn it around they will see excerpts from Martin Luther King Jr.’s Riverside Church speech against the war. Another reads “Support Our Troops,” and when turned around includes excerpts from a letter written by an Army sergeant from the battlefield.

Tensions between the loyal acolytes who finance libraries to burnish a president’s legacy, and professional scholars who would let the chips fall where they may, is baked into the library system, which depends on public-private partnerships. Even so most presidential libraries tend toward the reverential. Clinton’s library in Little Rock, Arkansas, has been criticized for portraying his impeachment over the Monica Lewinsky affair as, “a quest for power that the president’s opponents could not win at the ballot box.” George W. Bush’s in Dallas has an interactive exhibit that lets visitors choose whether to invade Iraq, but if they decide not to, the 43d president appears on the screen to explain why the war was necessary.

“What’s happening here is, because it’s Nixon—and because everything about Nixon and his presidency is sui generis—it’s more visible, more contentious, more newsworthy,” says the historian Richard Norton Smith, the unofficial dean of presidential libraries (having run those of Herbert Hoover, Dwight Eisenhower, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan—plus the independent Abraham Lincoln presidential library in Springfield, Illinois). “But it’s not all that dissimilar to the same process that unfolds over time throughout the system. The fact is, these libraries have a life cycle. I always tell people that when they first open, you’re looking at the first draft of a book, inordinately influenced not so much by the president or first lady as it is, for example, by members of the administration or their rich friends, for whom this is their ticket to immortality.”

The Lyndon Johnson library, for example, is now on the fourth version of its permanent exhibit, and the Gerald Ford library just opened its third. In the case of the Nixon exhibits, Smith says, “It was dated, it was tired. Forget Watergate for the moment. If you just take into account the revisionist history that over the last 25 years has been made possible because of research in the Nixon papers—if you look at nothing other than that—it would justify a fresh look at the story as it unfolded.”

The new Nixon exhibits are the work of the Thinkwell Group, a cutting-edge firm in Los Angeles, which has helped create theme parks and museum displays worldwide, including the Warner Bros. Studio tour in Leavesden, England, where the Harry Potter movies were filmed, the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry and Elvis Presley’s Graceland. Kate McConnell, Thinkwell’s creative director for the Nixon project, says her team “always starts with what is the story, what is the story of Richard Nixon and what do guests think they know walking in the door?”

For that reason, she explains, the designers chose to begin the new tour with the 1968 campaign—the year of riots, assassinations and unrest in which Nixon won the presidency. The galleries continue with accounts of Nixon’s time in office—Vietnam, the Apollo space program, desegregation of Southern public schools, the opening to China and détente with the Soviet Union—before grappling with Watergate and a recreation of the interior of the Marine One helicopter that lifted Nixon off the White House lawn after his resignation. (The real helicopter sits on the lawn outside the museum).

“It’s a fairly traditional thing to start with, ‘He was born, he grew up here,’” McConnell says, “but I think, especially for kids today, 1913 is a different world. It’s very hard to contextualize and very hard to relate to. Even when we started designing this two years ago, I don’t know that we knew then how much today’s political and social zeitgeist would be related to the discussion that was happening in 1968 [in terms of social upheaval and controversial wars]. It keeps becoming even more relevant.”

A lucky accident of architecture means that the account of the presidential years ends just as a visitor turns a corner and looks out a window to the small frame California bungalow that Nixon’s father built from a lumberyard kit the year before he was born. That’s where the galleries begin to trace Nixon’s early years, his Navy service in World War II, his election to Congress, the Senate and the vice presidency—and his courtship of Thelma Catherine Ryan, known as Pat, whom he met with they were both acting in a community theater production of “The Dark Tower,” a 1933 melodrama.

Baribault and Ellzey hope that the redone exhibits might double museum attendance, which has stalled at around 100,000 visitors annually in recent years—in part, they believe, because so little had changed over the years. With its location in the heart of Orange County, the Nixon library faces competition not only from the Reagan presidential library in Simi Valley, northwest of Los Angeles, but from the nearby tourist mecca of Disneyland. “Southern California is a very tough entertainment market, and I use that word deliberately,” says historian Smith.

Ellzey is the first to acknowledge that his background—he holds degrees in political science and law, but is not a professional historian or academic—makes him somewhat unusual among presidential library directors. But he is not unique. Mark Updegrove, director of the LBJ library in Austin, Texas, had a background in magazine publishing before taking the job. He says he is excited to offer “a whole new treatment” of Nixon’s story, and believes, “There’s going to be a lot more reasons to come here.”

Baribault says the foundation also looks forward to a more robust lecture and educational program, one that can explore Nixon’s relevance in the present day. “We probably had in the old system speakers who were a little too one-sided,” he says. “We’re now dealing with what role can the library play when the president is gone and a lot of the dust is settled.”

For his part, Naftali says he has no expectation that any presidential museum will present a totally unvarnished view of its subject—especially one as complex as Nixon, whose dark side, he notes, “was not simply a feature of Watergate, but runs throughout his administration—he was a restless soul.”

Still, he is hoping for the best.

“The federal government was never going to have the funds to redo the entire museum, and except for Watergate, it was tired,” Naftali says. “It was pre-Internet, pre-interactive, pre-digital age. So the question was would the museum present the wealth of discussion and interpretation that is so clearly evident in the papers down below? Because one of the things we wanted to avoid was a contradiction between the reality of the research room and the reality of the museum. Because the reality of the tapes and papers is not the same as the reality of Richard Nixon’s memoirs, and the memoirs were the sacred text of the previous museum.”

Not this time around, apparently.

“I’m not saying it has to be a better reality,” Naftali adds, “just a more complicated reality.”

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