David Greenberg: The Watergate Wars Just Ended

David Greenberg, a contributing editor to The New Republic, teaches history at Rutgers University and is at work on a history of presidents and spin. This article appeared in the June 28, 2012 issue of the magazine.

IN MARCH 2011, the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, California, opened its new Watergate Gallery—the portion of the museum devoted to the constitutional crimes for which President Nixon will always be known. For years, visitors had seen an extended apologia for Nixon, which absurdly suggested that Democrats planned to impeach him in order to make House Speaker Carl Albert president. That exhibit, drawn up with Nixon’s involvement, was always best understood not as credible historical interpretation but as a campaign in the former president’s lifelong quest for rehabilitation. But now, in its place, stands a meticulously researched and beautifully displayed multimedia exhibit that draws upon recently videotaped oral histories, newly unearthed archival documents, and excerpts from the roughly 4,000 hours of tape recordings that Nixon surreptitiously made as president. The exhibit traces an array of White House–sponsored crimes that began well before and extended well after the famous break-in of June 17, 1972, the fortieth anniversary of which occurs this month.

The extirpation of the old Nixonian propaganda came about because of an irony of history. Nixon had tried to abscond with vital records of his presidency and, after he lost a legal challenge, was excluded from the club of presidents whose libraries enjoyed official government blessing. But, by the twenty-first century, Nixon’s daughter Julie came to see that the museum couldn’t survive unless it became a part of the National Archives, with the operating budgets that such membership affords. After a battle with her sister, Tricia, which divided the dwindling band of Nixon loyalists, the Nixon library went legit in 2007.

The library director chosen, academic historian Timothy Naftali, was committed to unpoliticized scholarship. Despite some often-fierce resistance from the Nixon Foundation, as well as from old-guard archivists in Washington used to accommodating the Nixonites, Naftali succeeded in expanding the museum’s public programming and in writing and pushing through the new, historically credible exhibit. Though Naftali had to fight to get the display opened, what was remarkable about its ultimate reception was how little consternation it aroused. Some of the usual suspects carped, but no substantial opposition arose in the press, or from Congress, even under Republican control. The Nixon Wars, it seemed, were over—or coming to a close....

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