The Richard Milhous Nixon Presidential Library and Museum has been a source of controversy since it opened back in 1990. It went public in 2007. After it took control, one of the first acts of NARA, the National Archives, though it took a while to finish, was to redo the notorious Watergate exhibit.
The museum had mostly omitted Watergate. Its introductory video ended with eight covers of Time Magazine, each of Richard Nixon; none was about Watergate. (Nixon was on 54 Time covers, 11 of which concerned Watergate.) Of the 16 film clips on display at the library, none treated Watergate. When it simply had to discuss Watergate, the library mystified it: "The story of Watergate is enormously complex. Even today, basic questions remain unknown and perhaps unknowable." Issues of right and wrong were not involved: "Given the benefit of time, it is now clear that Watergate was an epic and bloody political battle. . . ." Labels minimized Nixon's role in the ensuing coverup, instead blaming Martha Mitchell and John Dean!
Actually, the "benefit of time" has revealed Nixon's participation ever more clearly. In October, 1997, for example, Walter Pincus and George Lardner, Jr., reported how additional tapes directly involved the president in "providing money that Nixon knew was being used as hush money for the Watergate burglars."1
When the archives took over, it appointed a new director, Timothy Naftali. He told them and the Nixon foundation, "I can't run a shrine. I'm a historian." The redone Watergate exhibit opened in 2011, prompting a new controversy: the Nixon Foundation, formerly the sole owner/operator of the museum, objected to it. Later that year, Naftali resigned. Since then, the Nixon Foundation has blocked the appointment of a new director, most recently objecting to Mark Lawrence, professor of history at the University of Texas. His "perspective" on the Vietnam War, revealed in his Oxford University Press book, The Vietnam War: A Concise International History, was "different," in the words of Ron Walker, chair of the Foundation's board of directors. (See the recent story by Jon Wiener in The Nation.)
In a sense, continuing conflict at the Richard Milhous Nixon Presidential Library and Museum is good, because continuing controversy befits Richard Milhous Nixon. For that matter, all presidential museums might benefit from controversy. All of them wind up as neither libraries nor museums, for they invite people neither to learn nor to muse. Rather, they are exercises in spin control, seeking to convince visitors that their subject is both heroic and blameless and certainly blemish free. (I have not really earned the right to write "all of them," for I have not visited all the presidential museums. If you have a candidate for a good museum, one that honestly presents the tough issues related to its president, please comment below.)
I visited the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in the late 1990s, before the National Archives had anything to do with it. (Therefore, I shall describe its exhibits in the past tense, although I think most of them are still intact.) When I left, having spent the afternoon, I felt that Richard Nixon had just lied to me once again, from the grave, no less. I had the same feeling about Kennedy when I left the JFK Library in Boston. Both museums reminded me of obituaries in third-rate small-town weeklies that feel they must speak only positively of the dead. Upon leaving the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas, on the other hand, I actually felt better about JFK, partly because that museum had treated me as a knowledgeable adult.
The proliferation of presidential libraries is recent. Every president since Hoover now has one. No president before Hoover got one except Rutherford B. Hayes, who was wealthy enough to build his own. Abraham Lincoln got one, to be sure, but only in 2004. Jefferson Davis, hardly a president of the United States, also got his own Presidential Library and Museum, again recently, in 1998, supported by $4.5 million in state bond funds. It is located on the grounds of Beauvoir, his probable mistress's house, on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.2
Surely this proliferation of libraries is unfortunate. Among their alleged purposes is to gather the president's papers in one place for scholarly convenience. Archivists, librarians, and researchers have lamented the resulting scholarly inconvenience. Presidential papers used to go into the National Archives, along with those of cabinet members and other high officials. Pity the poor scholar who is trying to research, say, American invasions of small nations since 1930 — s/he must traipse to West Branch, Iowa (Hoover); Independence, Missouri (Truman); Abilene, Kansas (Eisenhower); Boston, Massachusetts (Kennedy); Austin, Texas (Johnson); Yorba Linda, California (Nixon); Ann Arbor, Michigan (Ford); Atlanta, Georgia (Carter): Simi Valley, California (Reagan); Austin, Texas (Bush I); Little Rock, Arkansas (Clinton); and Dallas, Texas (Bush II), as well as search the archives in Washington. (Researchers do not have to go to Hyde Park, New York, for FDR's papers, because he wisely left them at the Archives in Washington.)
Interestingly, vice presidential museums seem to be trending in the opposite direction. To be sure, the Dan Quayle Center and Museum opened in 1993 in Huntington, Indiana, joining the Charles Curtis House Museum in Kansas. However, the Charles Dawes Museum and the Alben W. Barkley Museum have closed, a proposed Hubert Humphrey Museum has been abandoned, and the John Nance Garner Museum is undergoing renovation. There are no others, to my knowledge.3
When I visited, the Nixon Library was even less useful as a library than other presidential libraries. It didn't house Nixon's presidential papers or even his vice presidential papers. (Nixon's presidential papers were at the National Archives then, to prevent him or his minions from destroying them.) The only items ready for use at the Nixon Library when I visited dated from 1946 through 1952, before he was Vice President. The Nixon Library had not even put out a statement describing its collection, rules of use, and the like. The main activity of its staff seemed to be battling to keep the public away from Nixon's tapes and papers that were in the custody of the National Archives, most of which were unavailable to scholarly use "largely because of delays caused by legal wrangling with the Nixon camp," according to George Lardner, Jr., a journalist paraphrasing the acting director of the National Archives' Nixon project.4 Moreover, the library's first director, Hugh Hewitt, "announced that researchers deemed unfriendly would be banned," singling out Bob Woodward of the Washington Post. In October, 1997, I asked Susan Naulty, the archivist at the Richard Milhous Nixon Library, to "kindly send me information as to your collection and how to make arrangements for using it." She never replied.
Most visitors never see the library part of a presidential library. They aren't supposed to. The libraries are for researchers. Connected with the libraries are "museums," but it is hard to use the word without quotation marks, for they invite people neither to learn nor to muse. Rather, they are exercises in spin control, seeking to convince visitors that their subject is blameless and blemish free. "Shrines" would be a better term for them.
The Nixon Museum exemplifies the problem. During Watergate, perhaps the most telling point made by Nixon defenders was their claim that Richard Nixon only did what other presidents were doing, just a little more obviously.5 In a way, the Richard Milhous Nixon Library and Birthplace is the perfect monument to the Nixon Presidency, because it only does what other presidential libraries do, like those for Kennedy and Reagan, just a little more obviously.
Its museum part is even less accurate than its obvious competitors, the Kennedy, Johnson, and Reagan libraries. Consider this content-free claim about Nixon's crucial 1968 presidential campaign: "He was not afraid to take principled stands. By the time Election Day arrived, the electorate knew exactly where Nixon stood on the great issues of the day; he stood with them, and they stood with him." Such rhetorical fog is all too common during campaigns, but decades later, the museum still did not reveal what the issues of the day were, let alone what "principled stand" Nixon took on any of them.
On the Vietnam War, the JFK, LBJ, and Richard Milhous Nixon libraries offer no new information but provide object-lessons in spin-control. Recognizing that the war was a mistake, the Kennedy Library blames Eisenhower and Johnson, the Johnson Library blames Kennedy, and the Nixon Library blames Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson. On this point, the Nixon Library is closest to the mark, because all four of his predecessors played important roles in expanding America's involvement in Southeast Asia. But then the Nixon Library blows its credibility by proclaiming, "[Nixon] brought peace with honor." Perhaps aware that some visitors might recall that America's exit from Vietnam was accompanied by neither peace nor honor, a later exhibit finds someone else to blame: Congress, for cutting off funds for the war! Whoever wrote these exhibit labels seems not to have noticed the incongruity in praising Nixon for peace while berating Congress for not supporting the war.
As well, nowhere did the museum admit that all that Nixon's Vietnam policies had achieved — indeed, all that he and Henry Kissinger even intended to achieve toward the end — was "a decent interval," as Kissinger put it, between American withdrawal and South Vietnamese capitulation. Of course, the public might think badly of Nixon (and Kissinger) if they understood that the enormous sacrifice of life during his presidency (22,000 American lives, about 500,000 Vietnamese, 50,000 Laotians, and 250,000 Cambodians), as well as many billions of dollars, was just to help Nixon/Kissinger look better politically.
Misrepresentation at the Nixon Library was so pervasive that the museum lost all credibility with me. Fawn Brodie said of Nixon that he told "unnecessary lies," and so did his museum. One whole room treated civil rights. Repeatedly its exhibits claimed that more schools were desegregated during Nixon's six years than in any other comparable period in American history. One label said that Nixon "brought the full authority of the White House to bear on desegregating southern schools without violence or coercion." Nonsense! More schools were indeed desegregated, but despite Nixon! Shortly after he took office, Nixon ordered the Justice Department to change sides and oppose desegregation before the Supreme Court. Most observers believed he had cut a deal with Mississippi Senator John Stennis, chair of the Senate's Armed Forces Committee: give me more funds for the Vietnam War and I'll stop desegregation in your state. He had cut no deal with the Court, however, which ordered full desegregation as of Christmas break, 1969-70. All Nixon really accomplished was a four-month holdup, informally known in Mississippi as the "Stennis delay."
Another exhibit praised Nixon for having progressive policies toward American Indians. He did. He appointed a Native American to head the Bureau of Indian Affairs. During Nixon's six years in office, BIA schools hired many more Native teachers and principals. To this day, many residents of Taos Pueblo revere him for returning their sacred Blue Lake to their ownership. But an institution that praises Nixon for school desegregation, falsely, may not be believed when it praises him for his Indian policies, accurately.
The Nixon Library and Museum was already large when I visited. It incorporated his birthplace house, a garden, and 55,000 square feet of exhibits. Yet it had almost no visitors. In almost every room, I found myself alone. As I left the museum, I asked the admissions clerk how many people visited in an average day. She glanced at my note pad and then replied, "Oh, we have no idea!" Of course, that's not true. Every museum tracks the number of visitors. I thought this example of secrecy, coupled with apprehension about who I might be, comprised the perfect final exhibit for its protagonist. But the sales clerk in the museum giftstore had not gotten the word that the subject was taboo. "Less than a hundred on a weekday," she replied, not counting school groups. "Maybe 300 on a big weekend day."
Considering how poor was the presentation of history at the Nixon museum, surely it was good that so few people visited. That way, its counter-factual spin did less damage. After the new director, whoever s/he may be, has de-sanitized its portrayal of our 37th president, the Richard Milhous Nixon Presidential Library and Museum needs to mount exhibits that treat hard subjects, thus prompting controversy. Then people will come. Suggestions:
— Nixon's continuous connections with organized crime, including his friendships with Bebe Rebozo and Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa. These connections go way back, even before he defeated Helen Gahagan Douglas for the U.S. Senate in 1950. Did they affect Nixon's direction of the Department of Justice and the FBI? His pardoning of Hoffa? His anti-Communism? (Rebozo and other Nixon cronies were tied to gambling and other vices in the Cuba of dictator Fulgencio Batista, which Castro brought to an abrupt end.)
— Nixon's operatives sabotaged LBJ's last chance for peace in Vietnam by promising our puppet government in South Vietnam that he would be far more supportive of them than Johnson, so they should wait for him to take office. Therefore during the last days of Nixon's 1968 campaign against Hubert Humphrey, the Saigon regime responded by refusing to participate in the peace talks that Johnson was trying to set up, which eliminated the possibility that peace in Vietnam might give Humphrey the presidency.6
— Initially at least as progressive on civil rights as JFK, Nixon stumbled into his "Southern strategy" to ward off defections to Alabama Gov. George Wallace. Despite fine reporting by Thomas and Mary Edsall and others, most Americans still don't realize that Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater purposefully and effectively appealed to Dixiecrats in 1964. Nixon then maintained and solidified the Republican Party in 1968 as the party of overt white supremacy.
In 1972 Richard Nixon proclaimed, "When information which properly belongs to the public is systematically withheld by those in power, the people soon become ignorant of their own affairs, distrustful of those who manage them, and — eventually — incapable of determining their own destinies." Surely he was right. But Nixon never took that sentence seriously. Neither does his library.7 When it does, the resulting controversies will attracts thousands, and their visits will be enlightening.
1 Walter Pincus and George Lardner, Jr., "President Nixon on Watergate Hush Money," Washington Post, 10/30/97.
2 Cf., inter alia, Carol Bleser, "The Marriage of Varina Howell and Jefferson Davis," in C. Bleser and L. Gordon, eds., Intimate Strategies of the Civil War: Military Commanders and Their Wives (NY: Oxford UP, 2001), 23-26, Whether Davis was sexually intimate with Sarah Dorsey seems not now recoverable.
3 There is a "Country Life Center" in Iowa that is the birthplace farm of Henry A. Wallace, but it is more about farming than about FDR's vice president.
4 Pincus and Lardner, op. cit.
5 This interpretation seems to have won: 70% of Americans in a survey in the late 1990s agreed he did nothing "worse than what other presidents have done."
6 Robert Dallek, "Three New Revelations About LBJ," Atlantic Monthly, 281 #4 (4/1998), 44.
7 1972 Presidential proclamation to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act, quoted in Tim Weiner, "The Cold War Freezer Keeps Historians Out," NY Times, May 23, 1993.