What Role Should a Presidential Library Play?


Ms. Krusten is a historian and former National Archives Nixon tapes archivist.

In 2007, the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) opened the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, California.  From 1990 to 2007, the Nixon Foundation operated a private library in Yorba Linda that housed some of Nixon’s pre- and post-presidential materials.  NARA held Nixon’s presidential materials in the Washington, D.C. area.  Historian Timothy Naftali is the federal director of the new library and museum.  The Orange County Register recentlyreported on the imminent arrival in Yorba Linda, California of 40 million pages of Nixon’s White House files that previously had been housed at NARA in College Park, Maryland.

The Nixon Foundation works with NARA in some areas related to the new library and museum.  How has the Nixon Foundation prepared for the move of White House records?  By sending out mixed signals.  During 2010, the foundation has sponsored largely non-partisan legacy forums at which former Nixon staff members gather to share memories of their work in the White House.  On the other hand, essays posted on The New Nixon (TNN) blog, an off-shoot of the foundation’s former Nixon Forum, show different approaches to messaging.  TNN offers links to news stories and observations about Nixon, announcements of events at the Nixon Presidential Library, and opinion pieces.  Writers include Frank Gannon, John Pitney, Bob Bostock, who worked with Nixon on the original Watergate exhibit at the private library, and David R. Stokes, a Townhall blogger and pastor of a church in Virginia.

“Naftali’s anti-Nixon bias is apparently so deeply ingrained in his psyche that he cannot distinguish the truth from the dark fantasy he has created in his own mind about the Nixon Library.  Isn’t there an Alger Hiss Library somewhere he would like to be director of?”  Bostock said of Naftali at TNN in February.  His words surprised me as a former archivist.  The posting, however, provided an opportunity for a robust defense of Naftali and some dialogue over NARA’s mission.

Not everyone who blogs at TNN writes about Nixon.  Stokes often gives his take on current events, writing recently on TNN, “I would appeal to President Barack Hussein Obama today, to reach back beyond his Muslim, Marxist, and Liberation Theology (which is to real Christianity as anthrax is to sugar) roots and try to connect with his ‘inner-Lincoln.’”

Last year, Stokes wrote on TNN of President Obama’s speech to school children in September:

Fascism is about the expansion, glorification, and predominance of the state – that’s liberalism, not conservatism.

But dull facts are no match for frenzied media.  And young minds are no match for a massive campaign to foster the image of a president as more than what our constitution requires him – or her – to be.

Do I believe that we are on the verge of some kind of massive move toward ‘friendly totalitarianism’ in America?  No.  But I do think that if it ever really happened here, it would travel along the same national nerve pathways that are being used by this White House right now.

Nixon’s presidential foundation is unusual in having a related blog.  What are we historians to make of TNN?  It’s hard to say because the site has changed over time.  TNN was the brainchild of John H. Taylor, former executive director of the Nixon Foundation.  Taylor once called my generation of federal archivists “junior prosectors” but revealed a more thoughtful side of himself at TNN, where he engaged in lively give and take.  He came to understand over time that he had been perceiving attacks on Nixon “as one would attacks on their dad in the school yard.”  Taylor explained that “it wasn’t helping Nixon’s image, changing any minds or healthy for himself.”

Taylor, an Episcopal priest since 2004, left his position as director of the Nixon Foundation in January 2009, stopped blogging at TNN, and became full time vicar at St. John’s Church in Santa Margarita, California.  Where Taylor’s once was a strong opinion voice on TNN, Stokes and others now fill that role.

Most presidential foundations operate largely out of sight.  They raise money for library-related construction and work on museum and outreach activities as private sector partners with the governmental administrators of the federal libraries.  Larry Hackman, former director of NARA’s Truman Presidential Library, observed in 2006 of relations between the government and the foundations that “Though relations between the partners are positive and productive in most instances; in some others they are not.”  Hackman explained, “Over time, almost every presidential library partnership will change considerably -- and this can be the case even for those organizations which presently find it difficult to envision a different way of doing business together.”

In 2009, when Naftali invited John Dean to speak at the library, the Foundation said it would withdraw $150,000 in funding for a planned NARA exhibit.  Bostock blogged that “Tim Naftali is hiding behind the mantle of scholarship and balance to mask what appears to be his true intention:  to use the Nixon Library to diminish Richard Nixon and thus raise his own standing in the academic community.”  But Newsweek reported that “Naftali said foundation officials have essentially compiled ‘an enemies list,’ noting that they also complained about his decision to invite ex-Watergate prosecutor Richard Ben-Veniste to speak this summer.”

NARA interacts with the Nixon Foundation primarily on the museum and outreach side, but the Nixon family also has the right to file objections against release of records.  Should NARA be in the museum business at all?  Having no displays would reduce the need to interact with former presidents’ foundations.  On the other hand, if the NARA libraries continue to have museum displays, it might mitigate the shock to former officials of having their archival records thrown open for public examination.  The agency examined four library alternatives in a 2009 report to the Congress on Alternative Models for Presidential Libraries.  One was for a “centralized presidential archival depository funded and managed by NARA, with no museum.  Presidential foundations may build and manage their own museums in a location of their choice.”

Does some of the current rhetoric on TNN mean historians such as Stanley Kutler were right to worry about how Nixon’s advocates might view the new Nixon library and museum?  Time will tell.  Benjamin Hufbauer observed in Presidential Temples: How Memorials and Libraries Shape Public Memory that “A presidential library goes through at least three phases in its life:  first, its founding and initial development (largely controlled by a president and his supporters); second, the organization and opening of its archives for use by scholars (largely controlled by the National Archives); and third, a period of maturity, when a presidential library must reinvent itself to remain relevant.” 

Much remains to be released from undisclosed Nixon files and tapes.  NARA will strive to carry out its mission in a non-partisan manner, as always.  How things work out with the Nixon Foundation with displays, outreach, and other matters will depend on whether the decades-long battles over disclosure resulted in delays in the development Hufbauer describes, or whether, thirty-six years after Richard Nixon left office and sixteen years after he died, the library finally can enter a period of maturity.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Maarja Krusten - 5/15/2010

As of May 15, the links for The New Nixon site cited in my essay no longer work as the blog appears to have migrated to a new site directly associated with the Nixon foundation.

for the new URL for the blog. This makes in the URL as well as in the graphics that the blog is under the Nixon Foundation’s umbrella.

for Bob Bostock's essay about Dr. Naftali.

The Message from the Executive Director that John H. Taylor posted on The New Nixon on February 18, 2008 was left out of the transfer to the New Blog:

For now, Taylor's essay still can be seen at
However, the part that interested me when I first saw it some time after it first was posted in 2008 -- David R. Stokes posting a comment under Taylor’s February 18, 2008 essay identifying himself as a Townhall blogger and asking if he can blog at the New Nixon --is not available. I don't have any information on why the Nixon Foundation left out Taylor's February 18, 2008 essay and Stokes's request to be allowed to join the bloggers when it reconfigured the blog at the end of this week. I know of no reason why the Nixon Foundation would not want to share that information with the public.

Maarja Krusten - 5/4/2010

"Just to make it perfectly clear,{" I have no official affiliation with The New Nixon. I simply was a friend of the blog for a while. I never blogged there (although someone once suggested to me that I do so and a couple of people have said they would like to see me write at length about some of the topics. Yes, really, as if I needed encouragement to write at length!). I merely posted comments there from time to time. I thought the site, as originally set up, had the potential to become a place where people could leave behind the stale and the formulaic and to look at Nixon the man and Nixon the president. And to find a comfortable and safe haven to discuss how he governed and the lessons one might draw from what happened in the past.

To their credit, I was able to do that with two of the TNN bloggers, founder John H. Taylor and David Emig. However, over time, after its establishment in February 2008, the zeitgeist seemed to change, at least for this reader. Hence my sense of lost opportunities. My federal cohort once was sterotyped in ways that didn’t fit (we weren’t all liberals who were biased against Nixon, despite some efforts to paint us as such) so I had developed a keen interest in how people form stereotypes and how to move beyond them. I concluded that some of what happened to my generation of NARA employees was the result of our sequestration, unique among people who work with presidential records. Unlike at the traditional presidential libraries, we Nixon Project employees remained in Washington, remote, mysterious and easy to misunderstand and stereotype, even fear, while Nixon and his family lived and worked elsewhere.

Unfortunately, as The New Nixon site evolved, I became less and less convinced that it could live up to its potential. That it seemed to move away from its original goal and objectives just as the Nixon presidential library took custody of his archival materials seems simply to be an unfortunate coincidence. I would urge any other presidential foundations that establish offshoot blogs to think very carefully about strategic communications. Blogs have the potential to be great tools for outreach and, yes, building bridges.

Maarja Krusten - 5/4/2010

Make that "both shelters and batters" not "shelters and buffers."

Maarja Krusten - 5/4/2010

Hi, Lawrence, thanks for the comment. Perceptions vary, I suppose, because I've seen Naftali on tv, too, and based on that and other contacts, have never viewed and do not now view him as hostile to Nixon. I have complete confidence in him and his ability to direct the federal NARA administered presidential library as required. Of course, I’m steeped in NARA’s culture, one I greatly respect, in addition to being trained as an historian.

My general view of Nixon, a man for whom I voted and on whose behalf I wore Silent Majority and Tell it to Hanoi buttons while he was in office, is that he largely brought himself down. As Nixon noted in an interview that David Frost did with him, he gave his enemies a sword and they stuck it in him. I've long thought that the political world, which both shelters and buffers presidents, can weaken them in key areas where they most need to show strength and fortitude. It's very easy for a sense of personal responsibility to erode and for the principal himself and those around him to lose sight of the fact that a political leader's obligations to his party and those who voted for him include sustainability.

By that I mean recognizing the need to understand both those who support and oppose you among the voters, something which can be surprisingly difficult to do in the White House bubble. Perhaps it is inevitable that those who are demonized and dehumanized in the political process start to lose sight of the humanity of their critics, as a result. It’s tremendously difficult to develop the detachment necessary to stand back and say, what lies at the core, here. But it can be done. And then finding a way to stand for what you believe in while handling critics in a way that doesn’t cross lines that shouldn’t be crossed (like misusing the powers of federal agencies). Not respecting the bright lines regarding misuse of power may feel satisfying in the short term but often backfires in the end.

If you’re interested in learning more about Barack Obama, I recommend David Remnick’s The Bridge. It provides useful insights into how those of various political persuasions and ideological stances who have known and worked with Obama view him. As I told Jonathan Dresner, I read a lot about presidents and leaders, I’m very interested in understanding them as human beings. Some of that stems from my having listened to 2,000 hours of Nixon’s tapes while employed by NARA – one certainly comes to understand the man as well as the politician, policy maker and ceremonial figure. It’s always worth trying to understand the man or woman, which explains why I read books about people of both parties. Of course, I’m an independent, as you know.

I’m sorry to see The New Nixon blog struggle the way it has been of late. I liked John Taylor’s vision of a place to discuss Nixon the leader and man. There are times nowadays when what is posted there seems to have nothing to do with either. I’ve actually suggested over the last year or so that the blog be divided, with a purely Nixon oriented blog retained under the TNN name and the more partisan or politically inclined bloggers establishing a separate blog for discussing current events. Combining the two at one site creates a perhaps irreconcilable dynamic that undermines Taylor’s original goal. Here’s an except of a note that I sent to the site administrator yesterday, when I let him know of the essay I have posted here at HNN:

“You'll notice in the comment I posted in chatting with Dr. Dresner that I referred to David Remnick's book about Obama, The Bridge. I myself temperamentally am a bridge builder. For a couple of years, I tried to play that role at TNN. I was uniquely positioned to explain why one might have voted for Nixon, why one might have fought to ensure his records were treated properly and released as required by law, and why one might value looking at presidents -- all presidents -- with finely brushed, nuanced portraits rather than painting them as caricatures. I finally gave up, unfortunately. It simply makes no sense to me to try to discuss Nixon as a human being and a president in an environment where the same criteria seem so hard to apply to others, whether they are archivists at NARA (me, Tim Naftali) or other presidents.

Fairness draws fairness, balance draws balance. When the elements are out of whack, things aren't going to work. Whatever TNN is trying to accomplish in the post-Taylor era pulls in two opposing directions and that just doesn't work for me. Had the dominant voices been bridge builders, you might have been able to resolve the opposing dynamics (asking for understanding for your guy, slamming other people). I don't see that sort of resolution occurring, however. Things just don't seem aligned for that to happen, nor do I even see that anyone thinks that might be beneficial. So, a missed opportunity, one I tried for a long time to keep open at the site, but now [must] finally simply admit defeat.

I did enjoy dealing with you, you always were very civil and responsive. Good luck and best wishes!”

Thanks for reading my essay, I appreciate that and the fact that you took the time to comment. I always enjoy chatting with you, Lawrence, and hearing your perspective, even when we look at some things differently.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 5/4/2010

Hi Maarja,

Thanks for the clarifications about Naftali. I had no knowledge of him other than seeing him once or twice on C-SPAN, when I wondered how in the world a man so hostile to Nixon could have gotten that job.

In my opinion, Barack Obama was elected only because he was of African descent. Many people,(white as well as black), voted for him mostly because he was a black man. His presumed ability to charm his opponents, and "build bridges," was not a key to his victory. John McCain carried 53% of white women and 57% of white men. (Per Politico exit polls, 11/5/08). Obama carried 95% of all blacks, and black turnout was around 20% higher than normal because of Obama's candidacy.

Maarja Krusten - 5/3/2010

Thank you for your good comment, Dr. Dresner.

I agree that a library-museum model has great value and under the right circumstances can work very well. At the NARA-administered presidential libraries, more people are drawn to the museum side to view exhibits and to visit a president’s birthplace, childhood home, or gravesite (some of which are near or at some such libraries) than come to the archival side to do research with his records. As you point out, not everyone is going to delve into the records – do research in primary sources -- or read books about modern day presidents. So exhibits serve an important educational value.

Having spent so much of my federal career screening presidential records to see what could be released to the public, it won’t surprise you that I read a lot about 20th and 21st century presidents. I recently read David Remnick’s The Bridge, John Heileman and Martin Halperin’s Game Change, Christopher Andersen’s Barack and Michelle, and David Plouffe’s The Audacity to Win. It strikes me that The New Nixon blog could have benefited from from a blogger with the characteristics Barack Obama first displayed early on, at Harvard. A bridge builder who reached out to conservatives and liberals alike and who navigated different racial and political worlds with ease, even, as some of the accounts suggest, with serenity. Obama won the presidency of the Harvard Law Review in part because conservatives as well as liberals threw their support to him. As Remnick notes, when Obama left Harvard, a “conservative constitutional scholar” recommended him for a teaching job, he was so impressed by how he had handled his Law Review duties and dealt with people of various political persuasions.

My point is that there are people in any field and situation who temperamentally understand the value of building bridges, as well as ones who don’t. I think John Taylor could have served a bridge builder role had he stayed on at the Nixon Foundation and at the Nixon blog. I worked on Nixon’s 1968 campaign, voted for him in 1972, yet fought from inside and outside the National Archives to have the full set of “abuse of governmental power” material released for research from Nixon’s secret tapes. Obviously, I don’t fall into the comfortable, overly formulaic loyalist or enemy template when it comes to Nixon. Yet Taylor welcomed my recent outreach and we became friends, an astonishing turnabout, given that he once referred to me and my federal cohort as junior prosecutors. Old “enemies” can get over it – I’m glad to hear you are working on doing that in other areas.

The Nixon situation is tricky for many reasons. Generally, I find that the political world both shelters and batters presidents while they are in office. There is no one around to help a president who is leaving office to make the sharp pivot necessary to enable him to accept psychologically the examination of his recorded actions and internal deliberations by scholars. Does the ability to hold on to the protective cocoon for a little longer, in the guise of museum exhibits in which they have some say, help mitigate the shock of undergoing scrutiny by researchers? How that plays out depends on the principals. Perhaps the difference between how various presidents and their families and associates react to these issues is something NARA simply must endure until a greater level of maturity is possible for particular libraries.

As I noted in an article I published in the Presidential Studies Quarterly in 1996, Nixon was demonized beyond belief by some of his critics and opponents. That may give his associates and family extra hurdles to overcome. I know I would struggle with attacks on those I love, I sometimes think it’s a wonder anyone is willing to go into politics. I have no insights into whether the fact that Nixon’s son in law (Edward Cox) is chairman of the Republican party in New York and Cox’s son, Christopher, is running for office as a Republican, affects what the foundation and TNN’s bloggers have been doing in recent times. It need not, one certainly can build and maintain a wall of separation. I merely note that those conditions exist within the particular generations involved here.

Thanks again for reading my essay and offering such good comments.

Jonathan Dresner - 5/3/2010

For what it's worth, the library-museum model is a healthy one, I think. It bridges the unfortunately wide gaps between scholars and wider publics, keeps attention on the archive as a public resource, helps anchor the former presidents' in place as well as time, and connect their places to the national story.

What's not healthy is the Nixon Foundation's approach: there will come a time when the records are available and none of that generation will remain, when the partisans have passed away and nothing but interesting questions remain. I've run into problems, recently, suggesting that old enemies get over themselves and get on to asking and answering historically interesting questions, but I'm going to keep doing it.