Who Owns Richard Nixon?

Roundup
tags: Richard Nixon, Presidential Library



Jeffrey Frank was a senior editor at The New Yorker and is the author of “Ike and Dick: Portrait of a Strange Political Marriage.”

...In early 2012, after far too many delays, NARA finally designated a successor—the historian Mark Atwood Lawrence, a Vietnam expert and an associate professor at the University of Texas, in Austin. It was a solid choice but not one that pleased the Nixon Foundation. While Presidential foundations can’t veto a library director, Naftali wrote, “they are consulted, and Washington prefers they embrace the selection.” The Orange County Register, which closely watches the developments on Yorba Linda Boulevard, reported that Lawrence’s views on the Vietnam War—which challenged those of the Nixon Administration—made such an embrace impossible, and Lawrence, understandably impatient, withdrew his name.

I kept running into this sort of tension in the course of many visits to Yorba Linda between 2008 and 2012, while working on a book on Nixon’s relationship with Eisenhower. The research facilities there are underground; so are the offices of the director, his staff, the archivists, and the foundation, which had a section all to itself. I sometimes felt a little furtive whenever I went back and forth between my desk, in the researchers’ room, and the foundation offices, much as if I were travelling between enemy camps. I also felt the tug-of-war between two exaggerated ideas: the sinister, even evil Nixon portrayed by many modern scholars (and still celebrated in literary imagination) and the sunny view of Nixon as a prophet and peacemaker, an idea captured by Ferenc Daday’s epic ten-by-six-foot painting of then Vice-President Nixon as a superheroic figure greeting Hungarian refugees in Austria in 1956.

There is something risible about the painting, but, however unintentionally, it also represents Nixon in all his complexity. Daday, a Hungarian émigré, wanted to honor the Vice-President who talked about “liberation”—a suggestion that America might take military action in the Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe of 1956. (John McCain would have loved that Nixon.) But, like Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, who also enjoyed inflammatory language, Nixon knew better. That other side of Nixon emerged in meetings with President Eisenhower and legislators, where he demonstrated a realistic sympathy for the refugees and argued with some passion to relax immigration rules for the demoralized Hungarians who’d fled to the Austrian border after Russian troops crushed their revolution.

At the Nixon Library, meanwhile, the long war of ideological office politics goes on. Researchers like myself appreciated Naftali’s commitment to openness and honest scholarship and all that he had done to make available documents and tapes from the Nixon years. But some of us also got to know, and like, the men and women who worked for the foundation—people like Ron Walker and Sandy Quinn, who were decidedly helpful and trusting when they didn’t need to be.

So I would arrive when the doors opened in the morning, take a few minutes to browse the gift shop (I own an R.N. baseball cap and a What Would Nixon Do? mug), and then descend to the battlefield downstairs. One day, while searching the correspondence files, I came across an April, 1960, memo from Nixon that referred to two recent biographies, both out in time for the 1960 campaign: one by Earl Mazo, a reporter at the New York Herald Tribune, was sympathetic and objective, but could also be sharply critical; another, by Bela Kornitzer, was simply worshipful. “Everybody on our staff with any degree of intelligence would prefer the Mazo book to the Kornitzer book,” Nixon said.

That flash of historical honesty, I thought, might be a starting point for the foundation. Its members must realize that they can’t do much to influence the ups and downs of Nixon’s reputation, but they can still do a lot to affect the reputation of the institution that bears his name.





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