Dear John Taylor: A Letter to the Executive Director of the Nixon Library


Mr. Blanton is the Director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University.

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Late last week the Nixon Library and Birthplace abruptly cancelled a conference on Vietnam that was to have featured more than a score of prominent academics, including well-known critics of the Nixon administration. John Taylor, Executive Director of the Nixon Library, explained that he cancelled the event because only seven people had thus far signed up to buy tickets. In response to the Library's decision, Thomas Blanton, one of the scheduled panelists, wrote the following letter to Mr. Taylor.

Dear Mr. Taylor:

Thank you for appending me on your response to Professor Berman yesterday.  I remember with fondness my day at your Yorba Linda facility a few years ago, after which I emerged from my immersion in your selection of the Watergate tapes understanding for really the first time ever, that John Dean had actually masterminded the Watergate break-in and all the other dirty tricks and had stuck his victimized chief executive with the blame.  Ever since, I have featured your exhibit as a case study at the summer institute on archival research that we teach here at George Washington University, and no few of those graduate students have ventured to Yorba Linda to hear the selection for themselves, the better to tell the story to successive generations.

Thus, I was sad to find out in November 2003 that the Nixon library and birthplace sought to become a professional archival repository, part of the Presidential Library system.  All of the other presidential theme parks have taken the treatment, but surely President Nixon would have appreciated the outlier status that you have cultivated.  Perhaps it was a budgetary matter, and the opportunity to dip into the public till (even minus the percentage that your lobbyists at Cassidy must take) was too tempting to pass up.  Whatever the motivations, there was a silver lining that at least the deal promised to reunite, at long last, the spliced Nixon tapes, putting back into the National Archives (or at least into an adjacent storage room) the personal and Republican Party portions of the tapes that had been eviscerated from the corpus over the past 30 years.

But my gloom lifted with the joy of realizing that Nixonianism is not dead, in fact, as William Faulkner would have remarked, it's not even past.  Your plug-pulling on the Vietnam conference brought back memories of going off the gold standard without telling the Japanese.  Your laser-like focus on advance ticket sales (as of March 3 for an April 28 event) brought back memories of Donald Segretti's monitoring of attendance at Ed Muskie's events in 1970.  Your brilliant efforts to string along your ostensible colleagues from Whittier College, your outstanding dramatic performance in a minor role to pretend that the likes of Stanley Kutler were actually welcome in Yorba Linda, your extraordinary marketing, advertising, and public relations blitz to gain the largest possible audience for the conference (how big exactly was that email list that produced seven registrations seven weeks in advance?) -­ all reminded me of President Nixon's own face, lifted toward the chandelier, intoning solemnly, "If we need the money we can get the money.  We can get it in cash.  I know where it could be gotten but the question is who can handle it?" (Later, of course, he remarked, "And it would be wrong.")

Indeed, your cancellation convinces me to agree with you that it would be wrong for Yorba Linda to host real scholarly conferences.  Bar mitzvahs are far more lucrative.  Of course, you are also suggesting that it would be wrong for Yorba Linda to host real archival records, and you may well have a point there as well.

You really don't want scholars around, anyhow.  They have this annoying habit of clustering near the truth.  And that would definitely mess with your marketing, such as it is.

Thomas S. Blanton
Director, National Security Archive
George Washington University

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Maarja Krusten - 3/9/2005

All of this is discernible in public record: the court record in Civ. A. 92-662-NHJ ; my 8 ltrs publ. in WP & NYT bet. 1995-2005 + various articles. The so-called "contested files" prev blocked by RN have been open at NARA since '96. By Smartphone.

Maarja Krusten - 3/9/2005

To argue over the use of vinegar or honey is pretty pointless, as first you have to figure out who has power in these situations. It is not the historians and archivists. What really is needed is some kind of a balance of power, and that simply does not exist. Nor is it likely to exist.

Mr. Blanton writes "to" Mr. Taylor, "Of course, you are also suggesting that it would be wrong for Yorba Linda to host real archival records, and you may well have a point there as well."

Most newspapers, when they bother to describe the proposed transfer of the Nixon materials from the National Archives in College Park, MD, to California, give a bland, simplistic take on the matter--"Nixon's Papers Coming Home." Lisa Friedman was one of the only reporters to dig a little more deeply.

When Lisa Friedman wrote in January 2004 in the LA News about the transfer of Nixon's records to the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, she quoted John Taylor as saying, "Taylor also insisted that scholarship would be safe at the Nixon Library. 'It's going to be the government doing it,' he said of future releases, like the last segment of Nixon audiotapes due out in about three years. Neither the Nixon Foundation nor the family, he insisted, will have any input regarding whether materials should be made public."

If that were so, why is it that one of the archivists who once worked with the Nixon tapes at the govenment's archival repository (the National Archives in Washington, DC), recently wrote me, "We were naive in the 1980's in thinking that the lawyers and politicians would allow us to make the final decisions about what would be released. . . . Presidents of both parties stick together on this issue of delayed access." Basically, the archivist was saying that the National Archives CANNOT carry out its core mission of acting as a nonpartisan, objective broker between various stakeholders (the research public, the creators of records, current officeholders). The power all is on the side of Presidents and their allies, not the historians and archivists.

Why would an archivist say that the National Archives' mandate is hollow? Because archivists know that, despite what Mr. Taylor told Ms. Friedman, Nixon and his representatives applied enormous pressure on NARA for 20 years. First they argued that all of Nixon's taped conversations should remain private. Then they tried to limit access through litigation, arguing that conversations not dealing with Watergate should not be opened during Nixon's lifetime or during the lifetime of participants Then they went to the Reagan Justice Department (DOJ) in 1985, seeking a veto over disclosures. Notes appended to a hearing on the matter later revealed they discussed how John F. Kennedy's Library supposedly was releasing only the "most favorable" items. DOJ granted the veto only to have it overturned in court.

In the meantime the archivists had been carefully screening Nixon's tapes and documents since the late 1970s, with the approval of NARA's lawyers and managers, expressed orally and also in "outstanding performance ratings" and special awards. When NARA tried to open some of Nixon White House Special Files (WHSF), the former President blocked 150,000 pages from being disclosed. For example, public withdrawal notices revealed that where archivists had tried to release all but 10 pages of a 270 page file folder, Nixon's lawyers blocked the release of all 270 pages. That is a HUGE difference of opinion on what can be disclosed to historians. Nixon's lawyers then argued that the government's regulations too narrowly defined "privacy."

Among the blocked WHSF documents (which the Archives sat on for 9 years, releasing them only after Nixon died) were ones dealing with governmental matters such as the Watergatec over-up and the Vietnam War. Before the documents were released, Mr. Taylor tried to argue in a letter to the editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education in 1996 that the blocked items "were of the sort that are routinely withheld at other Presidents' libraries." Perhaps not, as the Archives finally released most of them for research in 1996.

As if attacking the regulations was not enough, Nixon's representatives trained their sights on archivists who screened them for you, the research public. In 1992, Nixon's lawyers referred to government archivists as "incompetent clerical level archivists." (Time, December 21, 1992). The comment came during Professor Stanley I. Kutler's litigation to enforce the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act and to open the Watergate tapes. Nixon's lawyers also hammered at witnesses--I found myself at one point looking at one of the former President's lawyers and saying, "As far as I know, no government employee likes to lie." Curiously, I had a sinking feeling that I was the only person in the room who felt that way. The lawyers also sought evidence that a supervisory archivist (my boss) was biased against Nixon. They found none. My boss, a Vietnam veteran, had voted for Nixon in 1972. So had I.

But in all that legal hammering in 1992, the National Archives never once defended its own employees from the assaults by Nixon's lawyers. Think about that. You, as the employee of an organization, rack up numerous performance awards and kudos during decades of work. But when you are attacked from outside your employing organization, its leaders are afraid to defend you. They sit silent as an outsider attacks your professional reputation. That tells you something about the balance of power.

When the balance of power is weighted so strongly against public access and against archivists and historians, it is pointless to argue whether vinegar or honey would work better in appealing to a President's Foundation. Or, as some scholars sometimes do, to whine about bureaucratic footdragging in the declassification and public release of government documents. These issues are best assessed with full contextual sophistication.

Charles Lee Geshekter - 3/7/2005

One either fights fire with fire, or with water. Take yer pick.

Maarja Krusten - 3/7/2005

On the other hand. there is little "honey" in
I've seen no other Pres. Lib. figure use such rhetoric. Smartphone posting.

Charles Lee Geshekter - 3/7/2005

Someone should take Mr. Blanton aside, then quietly explain to him that he's likely to get further with honey than with vinegar in this matter.