Timothy Naftali: A Scholarly Salesman Takes Over the Nixon Library





Timothy Naftali talks about his new venture with the kind of on-message enthusiasm one expects from an Internet-age entrepreneur. He's excited about the "edgy and catchy" new logo, the retro 70s colors of the new Web site, and the user-driven experience he hopes to provide. "I want to bombard people with the new," he says. "We're moving fast. We're an entrepreneurial start-up, and we have a lot of energy. It's great, it's great."

Mr. Naftali is not poised to unveil the next YouTube. He has not invented a better version of Wikipedia. He is not, in the usual sense, a businessman at all. He is a cold-war historian with degrees from Yale, Johns Hopkins, and Harvard.

And as of October 2006, he became the first federally appointed director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum — or rather the director in waiting, because the library has not yet formally come under federal oversight.

Sometime this summer, if all goes according to plan, it will become the 12th institution to be accepted into the system of presidential libraries run by the National Archives and Records Administration. The exact date depends on the completion of facilities for Mr. Naftali and his staff. How smooth a transition the library makes from privately controlled shrine to public archive — and whether it can get past a legacy almost as controversial as that of its namesake — depends, in part, on how convincing a salesman Mr. Naftali proves to be.

He signed on for the job with the understanding that he "couldn't run a shrine," he says. "I'm a professional historian. I'm an empiricist. I'm not a Republican. And I see these institutions, these presidential libraries, as a place of learning and debate and discussion."...

Because of the legal roadblocks Nixon was able to throw up, as recently as 1991 the public had access to only 60 of the roughly 3,000 hours of White House tapes that exist. In the early 1990s, a frustrated University of Wisconsin historian named Stanley I. Kutler and the public-interest group Public Citizen sued the National Archives to force it to open the remaining tapes. As a result of that lawsuit, settled in 1996, some 2,019 hours of tape have been released, according to John Powers, supervisory archivist at the Nixon Presidential Materials Project.

But for researchers eager to get their hands on fresh material, the pace can feel glacial. The archivists are working their way through the final group of tapes — more than a thousand hours' worth, Mr. Powers reports — but no newly processed tape has been released since 2003.

Mr. Naftali believes that"it's important to get back in the tape-release business," and that he has a role to play."I can set priorities," he says."I can set goals for processing materials that the National Archives controls."...



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