The Nixon Papers: The Latest Ugly Turn in an Old Story


Mr. Kutler is the author of The Wars of Watergate.

Reports circulated recently that Congress is considering a proposal to give former President Richard M. Nixon's Yorba Linda museum possession of his presidential materials, including some 46 million pages, hundreds of video tapes, and the unique cache of 4000 hours of taped conversations. Such legislation could close off public access, and allow for the destruction of millions of valuable, still-unprocessed, primary sources.

After Nixon resigned in August 1974, the Ford Administration acknowledged his ownership of the materials -- including the right to destroy them. Congress objected, however, and passed the Presidential Recordings and Materials Act in 1974, taking control of the materials, insuring their deposit in the Washington area, and providing that the records be opened and made available to the public.

During his lifetime, Nixon successfully resisted various efforts to implement the law. He devised a maze of delaying tactics, and even secured the cooperation of the National Archives to keep the tapes sealed. When the Archives was sued to force compliance with the law, Nixon intervened. His death in 1994 seemingly ended the matter, as his family and estate no longer could afford the expense of further challenges. The lawsuit was settled, with the tapes opened, access secured, and matters of ownership, possession, and control finally resolved. Or so we thought.

Now, Nixon's heirs and designees have resorted to stealth tactics to reverse settled laws and practices of thirty years and have his papers and tapes shipped to California. The proposed legislation has been promoted by a "bi-partisan," well-connected, firm of lobbyists, which contends that "it's in everyone's interest to get all the records in one place, and in the hands of the archivist." They are in one place, in "his hands," in College Park, Maryland. If the Nixon people want the material in Yorba Linda, they can copy it, and do what they want with it, including maintaining their own peculiar vision of the Nixon presidency. That undoubtedly would be a lot cheaper than sending everything to California.

Richard Nixon's heirs and friends continue to battle for control of his presidential records, just as vigorously as he did. The victory they seek would enable them to determine what may or may not be seen by historians and the public. And not incidentally, they would gain the considerable advantage of having the government provide housing for the material and maintaining their museum.

The Nixon Museum has not proven worthy of our trust. Listen to the so-called "smoking gun" tape on display at Yorba Linda. As played there, it is virtually impossible to understand the subject of discussion, and the extent of Nixon's criminal actions. Will the curators play any new tapes, ones in which Nixon bluntly and openly speaks of his hush money payments to the burglars? Not likely. At Yorba Linda materials are used to resurrect Nixon's familiar ploy of re-writing his own history, as he wished it to be. Only open, unbiased access to documents will get us closer to historical truth.

Why is this being done so secretly and swiftly? Where is the input by other interested parties, particularly archivists and historians? Important public policy decisions should be made with public scrutiny and participation. History is too important to be left to the Nixon Foundation, their lobbyists, and friends.

This issue should not be settled behind closed doors by lobbyists and fixers. The public is entitled to open hearings, hearings that will consider the financial costs and the sanctity of historical records for the proposed move.

Let the National Archives complete the processing of the President's papers and tapes. The Archives is our national repository for national records, records that speak for themselves to our history and our understanding of the past. We need no political intervention to determine such matters.

Several years ago, the Nixon Foundation received $18 million as a payment for the government's alleged "taking" of the Nixon Papers. That was a questionable concession -- one largely arranged in a manner similar to the present undertaking. But all agree that the $18 million was a form of compensation for the papers. Now, the Nixon people want control of the papers. Can we at least have the $18 million paid back to the government?

A quarter century ago, during one of President Nixon's periodic battles to gain control of his presidential papers and tapes, the Supreme Court rejected his claim. Justice John Paul Stevens noted that after three years it already was clear that the President had proven to be an "unreliable custodian" of his papers. Nothing has changed.

This article first appeared in the Boston Globe and is reprinted with permission of the author.