Even Richard Nixon Would Have Been Embarrassed


Mr. Small, Distinguished Professor of History at Wayne State University, is the author of the forthcoming book, At the Water's Edge: Domestic Politics and the Vietnam War (Chicago: Ivan Dee, May, 2005).

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Richard Nixon once wrote that "History will treat me fairly. Historians probably won't because most historians are on the left." Apparently one way to compensate for the putative shortfall in fair and balanced historians is for the protectors of the Nixon legacy to control the dialogue at his presidential library, which still is not integrated into the admirable National Archives system of presidential libraries. Last fall, the Nixon Presidential Library and Whittier College began inviting an impressive group of historians, political scientists, journalists and other scholars to participate in the Library's first serious academic conference. Their discussion of President Nixon and the Vietnam War was scheduled for April 28-29.

On March 3, the organizers informed the participants that the conference had been cancelled because too few paying customers had made reservations to attend the sessions and meals, as reported on HNN. The director of the Nixon Library, John Taylor, claimed that he could not afford to pay for the conference under those circumstances. Perhaps, but I would bet he and his board got cold feet because of the prospect of two days of relentless scrutiny of Nixon and the war. Certainly none of us were told that the conference would be cancelled if two hundred people failed to sign up and pay $180 in advance.

In his emailed explanation for the conference's cancellation, Taylor pointed out that he had wanted to invite Robert S. McNamara and Henry Kissinger to help attract a large audience. But he bowed to the academics at Whittier and accepted such obscure scholarly lightweights as Richard Norton Smith, Stanley Kutler, George Herring, and Robert Schulzinger who were eventually invited, after a good deal of wrangling over several who were apparently on the Library's "do not invite" list. I imagine I was one of those.

In 1999, C-Span asked me to appear on its president-a-week show to talk about Richard Nixon from the library. John Taylor at first refused to permit me to appear on the program at his library. This was the first time that the producers had run into such a problem. When they threatened to take their show to another venue, he relented but only if he could sit alongside me as we fielded questions from phone callers and the interviewer. (In New York City, Joan Hoff fielded questions by herself for 30 minutes.) Prior to my appearance, Taylor sent out an email on November 18, 1999 to the friends of the Nixon Library listserv, including me, explaining how he tried unsuccessfully to place another historian on the program and that I was the author of a book that took "a sharply critical stance" but that they should watch anyway.

I could not understand what I had done to merit this treatment. When I was in Yorba Linda for the show on November 19, I asked Taylor whether he had read my book, The Presidency of Richard Nixon. He responded that it was on his desk, but he hadn't gotten around to reading it. He most likely never got beyond the first page of the preface where I made the astoundingly controversial observation that "Nixon was an unpleasant human being." Flipping beyond that first page, David Gergen, a former member of the Nixon administration, handwrote in an inscription to me in his book that "Far more than others, you write with balance, fairness, and insight," while another Nixon aide referred to the book in a blurb as "evenhanded." I did ask Taylor whether I could present a talk about my book at the Library, which incidentally was uninterested in carrying it in the bookstore, and he said no, it was too late, it had already been published. But he did graciously say that I should let him know when the paperback came out. I did so in 2002, asking him again if I could talk about my work at the library, paying all travel and lodging expenses myself. He never got back to me with an invitation to speak. It is true that Chris Matthews and Richard Reeves did appear at the Library so maybe I was rejected because I was not a big enough attraction for Yorba Linda.

Nonetheless, a glance at the featured events on the website of the Nixon Library suggests an institution that is not especially interested in objectivity. Upcoming lectures star Ari Fleischer, Newt Gingrich, Robert Dole, and Larry Elder, a conservative talk show host, all of whom shared the spotlight with our cancelled conference. Even Fox News has more balance. This whole business reminds me of a Moscow hotel where I stayed in 1973. The kiosk in the lobby had a display of the mastheads of scores of foreign newspapers allegedly available, including the International Herald Tribune. But the Tribune itself was never available when I was there and I doubt it had ever been available. The Nixon Library is apparently making a show of trying to achieve academic respectability, but it is just a show.

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Peter N. Kirstein - 3/12/2005

It must be the 10-year itch. The enemies of free speech and revisionism canceled the Air and Space Museum show on the genocide of Hiroshima in 1995.

Now a library has apparently canceled a conference due to apprehension that the presenters may not share a unanimity of hagiography over the late president.

Maarja Krusten - 3/9/2005

Please see also my comment posted this morning at

Maarja Krusten - 3/7/2005

LOL. Unfortunately, the Nixon Foundation already trails a lot of baggage. Consider this from a year ago: http://www.h-net.msu.edu/~hns/articles/2004/020504a.html Smartphone posting

Gary Ostrower - 3/7/2005

Perhaps the proper noun "John Taylor" should be converted into a verb, as in "the truth got johntaylored," or "let's johntaylor those unflattering documents."