About the Nixon Library's Promise to Turn Over a New Leaf
Mr. Kutler has written widely in American legal and constitutional history.
The Richard M. Nixon Library & Birthplace and Whittier College, the former presidents alma mater, joined forces to sponsor a promising April conference on Richard Nixon as Commander-in-Chief, with the immodest sub-title of The History of Nixon and Vietnam. Nearly twenty-five accomplished historians, journalists, and public officials, with wide-ranging expertise, agreed to participate. Many sacrificed more lucrative invitations, believing the gathering marked a signal occasion for evaluating a central figure of the past half century.
Yet just weeks before the conference, (The Rev.) John H. Taylor, former Nixon staffer and now Executive Director of the Yorba Linda facility, dramatically and unilaterally canceled the conference. It now is clear: the exercise was a charade and sham once Taylor determined that he could not limit participation to his usual roster of uncritical Nixon acolytes and believers, and still call it a historical conference. Alas! in the immortal words of Patrick Henry, we should have "smelt a rat." Thomas Blanton, of George Washington University and the National Security Archive, was exactly on target when he congratulated Taylor for his outstanding dramatic performance in a minor role to pretend that the likes of Stanley Kutler were actually welcome in Yorba Linda. . . . Blanton himself has exposed how Taylors museum uses and plays tapes to exonerate the former president. He is too modest; I am delighted to share any dubious honors with him.
Whittier College co-sponsored the conference. Quite simply, Taylor needed respectable academic cover, anxious as he is to establish a bailiwick on a par with other presidential libraries. But power-sharing had its price, as Whittiers representatives, led by historian Laura McEnaney, insisted on a genuine historical inquiry, with a wide-range of critical and friendly participants. Nevertheless, as recently as last month, during a conference at the University of Texas, Taylor indicated that the Nixon Library was turning over a new leaf and was eager to have an open discussion, among a variety of scholars, and with no constraints.
A new leaf? Taylor has promised new directions before. After I won my lawsuit in 1996 to liberate the tapes, I visited him and in an amicable meeting, suggested we work cooperatively to further the enterprise of establishing a solid historical understanding of Nixon. Privately, he agreed, but within a few weeks in a scarcely-noted review of my book in an obscure right-wing magazine , he accused me of distorting and inventing tapes. For himself, he managed to find things in the tapes that just were not there, anxious as he was to fulfill Nixons constant refrain that the tapes would exonerate him. (Well, then, why didnt they just make them available without a suit all of them?) Of course, if he could have spared more than 18 1/2 minutes to fool with the tape machines, the possibilities were limitless. Shortly afterward, he and his staff protested vigorously to Whittier College after they invited me as the Richard Nixon Professor for a public lecture. Irony is not at all his strong suit.
The now-Reverend Taylor joined forces with Whittier for scholarly cover. His Yorba Linda operation is a museum of historical distortions, devoted to extolling Nixons greatness. It operates with a marginal budget, defraying expenses by renting out the facilities for private events, including Bar Mitzvah receptions. Verily, the Reverend is totally tone deaf to irony. Library? The main holdings, when I was there (for the BBC) were autographed copies of Nixon and David Eisenhowers books, substantially marked up over their usual remainder prices. But now the Museum is scheduled to receive the Nixon papers and tapes -- and federal funds to house the material, which is wholly unprecedented for presidential libraries. The Bush Administration neglected to include the monies in its budget proposal, but a family friend in Congress and a high-powered K Street lobbying outfit will instruct the congressmen in the new American civics and you can bet the mortgage that the money will be forthcoming.
Alas! the Reverends recent action indicates that nothing has changed. Nixon was certainly unique, but Taylor and his minions are determined to give us a Stalinist version of historical truth.
The program appeared quite promising, and was developed jointly by Whittier College and the Nixon Librarys professional archivist, and the Reverend signed off on the final product. In the conference invitation, co-signed by Taylor, he expressed the belief that the conference will establish historical talking points for future scholars interested in Richard Nixon and his Vietnam policies.
From the outset, Taylors purpose was transparent. He expected to validate his (and David Eisenhowers) thesis that Richard Nixon was a wartime president, and that subsumes and excuses any questionable or criminal behavior on his part i.e., Watergate. Every president since 1940 has some entitlement to the claim of being a war president. But none of them authorized break-ins into the offices of private citizens to obtain potentially derogatory information about another citizen; none of them paid hush money to burglars who committed a felony in defense of Richard Nixons version of national security; and all of them paid their income taxes.
The Reverend apparently had a crisis of faith that shattered his expectations. I thought of William Howard Taft who upon hearing that Louis D. Brandeis would be named to the Court, a place he had so coveted for himself, said "es ist zum lachen." But this gets truly funny. Perhaps he needed another six months or so to have his Plumbers run a background check on the speakers and panelists.
How did he get religion so suddenly? Well, he claims that after sending out a substantial mailing to friends of the Nixon Museum, only seven people agreed to come and enclosed their checks for $180. $180! For four panels, a keynote talk, a closing address, and a couple of lunches (leftovers from Bar Mitzvah receptions?)! He wanted $90 if I invited my family to a meal and my talk. Why only seven people should pay $180 for some cardboard meals and pay to hear unpaid celebrities such as ourselves, is not exactly rocket science.
The Reverend now complains that if only he had been allowed to substitute such prominent policymakers as Robert McNamara and Henry Kissinger as keynote speakers (presumably instead of Richard Norton Smith and myself), the conference would have had prominent drawing cards. McNamara and Kissinger? They mock the very idea of a scholarly conference. Policymakers? Why invite failures? They belong in the ashcan of history. Both men have spent the past quarter century skirting their historical records. We have had enough by way of excuses. Their historical standing is not exactly warm and fuzzy; moreover, they have unassailable, impeccable records as Certified Public Liars.
Well, lets not kick John Taylor around anymore. We should consider where we go from here.
First, Whittier College must be congratulated for recognizing that it had been victimized by a clumsy sting operation. Dean of Faculty Susan Gotsch expressed her great disappointment, noting her faculty and staffs considerable expenditure of time and energy. But moving forward, she added, Whittier has begun a contemporary exploration of its Nixon legacy, and would continue to pursue collaborative scholarly examinations of that legacy. Academic language notwithstanding, I trust this is her polite way of severing future relations with the Yorba Linda outpost of Fortress Nixon.
But the fate of the Nixon administration records is of far greater importance. Reverend Taylor gloats and promises that the Nixon material will be transferred to California by the end of the year. As matters now stand, the National Archives in Washington must complete the processing before the move. (Easier said than done for it is difficult to secure people to commit to a project that soon will fold under them.) I fear that stipulation will be changed by the K Street legislators. In any event, Taylors behavior makes the fate of all the materials problematic. Such professional organizations as the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, and the Society of American Archivists, should have a stake in safeguarding these irreplaceable sources. Why not purchase a number of sets of CD versions of the tapes and distribute them around the land? Or hide them in salt mines?
We can watch with interest the actions of the new Archivist of the United States when (if?) the tapes and papers are transferred to Yorba Linda. Allen Weinstein is no stranger to Nixonian trickery, being the first to reveal the young congressmans frightened attempt to steer clear of proceeding with the Alger Hiss inquiry. Will he insist that professional archivists complete the task of reviewing and organizing the still-unprocessed portion of the materials? Or will we have that bonfire that the Nixon family so ardently desired in 1974? Perhaps an old friend from the 1960s and 1970s will do the right thing.
Speaking of those now-distant times, we should remember a Supreme Court opinion (written by a Republican) from 1977 that declared Richard Nixon an unfit guardian for his papers. Enough said.
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Maarja Krusten - 3/10/2005
I'm glad to see you've been following my posts. Length may be a factor for some people skipping over my posts, but can only be a partial explanation for lack of follow up. People such as I, who read Robert Caro's lengthy biographies for leisure fun, would not be daunted by reading a posting which runs a couple of printed pages.
I know of no other way than through painstaking detail to present these stories. The issues are so very complex and arcane, I doubt anyone, other than Stanley Kutler, has gone to the trouble of studying these issues, although it can be done through the public record.
First of all, I can't count on readers having read my previous comments so I repeat some background info. And second of all, I am not comfortable with the slam bam style of flinging charges (so and so is a so and so). So, I'd rather lay out the evidence so readers can assess it, and that naturally takes time.
Perhaps some people don't respond because the problems don't lend themselves to easy answers. I'm not sure there is an answer. I'm just trying to protect the good people who work at the National Archives, by providing background information on challenges they face.
The extent to which scholars are ignorant of the problems is reflected in this comment, which you may remember from April 2001 on H-diplo. See
Since I've run into that type of response in the past, and it is one reason I shook my head and just stopped posting on H-diplo, your kindness in commenting on my crusade is all the more appreciated.
Maarja Krusten - 3/9/2005
Thanks, I do what I can, as a current Fed. If I get in trouble or am fired, you'll know why LOL. For 10 yrs I've looked for some person or org to pass the torch to. Now I'm reduced to trying to protect former colleagues. Post By Smartphone.
Gary Ostrower - 3/9/2005
Ms. Krusten ends her letter by writing: "Unfortunately, there simply are not many advocates for records these days, certainly not on HNN."
She's right. Maybe most of us are too busy even to read comments like hers. Certainly the archive-reated issues that she has addressed in her comment here and her other HNN comments are indeed ignored by HNN readers, at least if measured by the number of messages that follow. HNN readers are much more likely to address trivial pursuits, like whether the OAH meeting should be relocated, than preservation issues. The result is that Krusten has become much too lonely a crusader for archive integrity, and lonely crusaders achieve little unless they are backed up by organization, organization, organization.
Maarja Krusten - 3/9/2005
Please see also my comment posted this morning at
Maarja Krusten - 3/8/2005
Thank you, Stanley, for noting correctly: "But the fate of the Nixon administration records is of far greater importance." Believe it or not, of the historians who have come to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) to research the Nixon archival records, you are the only one to have said that on HNN. As a former National Archives' employee, I appreciate that.
You note also, "We can watch with interest the actions of the new Archivist of the United States when (if?) the tapes and papers are transferred to Yorba Linda." Unfortunately, I cannot gauge that interest, at least from reading HNN.
nce it became clear that discussions of Allen Weinstein's scholarship merely were a sideshow to the larger, complex issues surrounding removal and nomination of the U.S. Archivist, HNN's posters and bloggers stop writing about him. I may be wrong, but people on HNN mostly seem to write about what they already know or think they know--perhaps it is natural to seek forums which allow them to shine--more than they engage on issues they didn't previously know about.
Here's an example. This past Sunday, the Washington Post's "Outlook" section published an article by Professor Bruce P. Montgomery, "Their Records, Our History." http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn/A9094-2005Mar5?language=printer
Montgomery wrote about "the impossible position that any chief archivist now faces." He asserted that "Over the past two decades, every president (including the current one) has eroded the independence that Weinstein extolled, particularly in regard to the ownership of presidential papers." He described how "His swearing-in followed the ouster of his predecessor, John Carlin, for reasons the White House has refused to explain to Congress, even though an explanation is required by law. Carlin's dismissal was just the latest episode in the ongoing politicization of NARA: His removal follows President Bush's extraordinary Nov. 1, 2001, executive order (E.O. 13233), which erected new barriers to obtaining access to former presidents' White House materials. Weinstein, in a questionnaire that he filed during his confirmation hearings, indicated that he did not intend to challenge E.O. 13233."
I searched in vain for mention of Montgomery's article on any of the blogs. You would think a cry against politicization of a key organization -- the one with the most critical history focused mission within the government -- would attract some notice. But no. Not a single HNN blogger mentioned it and I was the only poster on the main page to cite it. Academic freedom, freedom of speech, such issues draw lively debate. Archival independence, freedom to release the "essential evidence of government" mostly draw shrugs here. So, who is going to lobby on behalf of NARA?
You mention AHA, OAH, and the Society of American Archivists (SAA). These groups all have problems in acting as advocates for archival independence. After the OAH convention this past January, there were some comments on HNN by a few posters about its liberal agenda. Does this type of commentary make it easier to blow off these organizations when their voices are needed to speak on nonpartisan issues? Unfortunately, since groups such as Historians Against the War have spent professional capital on political issues, they may have diminished their ability to spend capital on nonpartisan public policy issues.
As for SAA, it tries to help the National Archives but is hampered by the fact that not all archivists hold the same views on public policy issues. Remember, it was former Assistant Archivist for Presidential Libraries John Fawcett and his assistant, Nancy Smith, not I, who appeared on the SAA panel on presidential records in 1993. My voice was heard only when I rose from the audience to ask a question. For all I know, Fawcett, Smith and I all could have been SAA members at that time. How could SAA in 1993 craft a position on the Nixon tape controversies that reflected our very differing views? It could not and did not even try
In 1994, the Washington Times cited Wilson's comments about Presidential privacy and his support for his then-embattled appointee, John Fawcett. Montgomery wrote on Sunday that "Close to midnight, on Jan. 19, 1993, then-U.S. archivist Don W. Wilson signed an agreement giving the elder Bush exclusive control over the computerized records of his presidency. According to this agreement, Bush could even order the U.S. archivist to destroy computer tapes and hard drives, the kind of material that had proved critical to the Tower Commission's investigation of the Iran-contra affair during the second Reagan administration. Following this subversion of the PRA, Wilson was appointed director of the George Bush Center at Texas A&M University."
You're familiar with John Fawcett from his testimony in the court case you filed in 1992 to gain access to the Nixon tapes. Scott Armstrong, writing in Athan Theoharis's book, A Culture of Secrecy, claimed that "in historical circles, Mr. Fawcett had become notorious for consistently taking the side of former presidents and the entourages they left in charge of the political management of the presidential libraries. Many of his colleagues at the archives were also worried that Fawcett's deference to past presidents might lead him to abandon the archives' obligation to ensure the preservation and accessibility of government records."
Archivists are buzzing with speculation that John Fawcett and former U.S. Archivist Don Wilson now are serving as Allen Weinstein's advisors on presidential libraries' issues. I am somewhat removed from NARA these days so I cannot confirm or deny that. If they have Dr. Weinstein's ear, I hope he is listening to other people as well, to hear different perspectives. He certainly is not listening to me, I definitely was not invited to Dr. Weinstein's ceremonial swearing in at NARA yesterday, LOL. I recently polled archivists on the Archives and Archivists Listserv to see whether they thought I could return to the National Archives as an employee. The result was a unanimous "no," with one archivist writing me privately, "no, because you could not be the advocate for records that you are."
Unfortunately, there simply are not many advocates for records these days, certainly not on HNN. And OAH, AHA, and SAA are hampered by various baggage they trail. But I do thank you for mentioning the Nixon records.