A final Watergate scandal uncovered by researcher

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tags: Watergate, Nixon



President Richard Nixon stole 4,000 acres from the United States Marine Corps to secretly build his presidential library on a spectacular piece of prime federal real estate, and created a new federal bureaucracy to cover up the scheme. Only Nixon’s resignation from office in disgrace put an end to his plan, which remained unreported for more than forty years – until now. In a new book on the hidden politics of presidential libraries, “The Last Campaign: How Presidents Rewrite History, Run for Posterity & Enshrine Their Legacies,” former senior House of Representatives staffer Anthony Clark breaks this amazing and detailed story for the first time. And he exposes the improper influence of powerful private foundations, political parties, and huge amounts of unregulated and undisclosed donations on these uniquely American institutions and the presidential “history” that their museums present. 

When running for re-election, presidents often claim it will be “the last campaign” because no further election awaits them. However, they do engage in one more last campaign: the fight to define and control their legacy. THE LAST CAMPAIGN illustrates how presidents shape the way history remembers them – and remembers them positively.

Using records he discovered on more than thirty-five trips over twelve years to the thirteen presidential libraries, Clark – who ran hearings and investigations of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA, the agency that operates the libraries) on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform – makes a compelling argument that what began as nonpartisan archival depositories have become extravagant, legacy-building showplaces where the goals of former presidents, their families, foundations, and the national parties trump accuracy and the (often inconvenient) facts. 

Working as a software instructor during the day and researching at night and on weekends and vacations, Clark had planned to write a simple history of presidential libraries. Then he discovered NARA had been hiding decades of their own records about the libraries, and fought for more than two years to get the 750,000 pages of records released. In a short time he went from independent researcher to directing oversight of NARA and the presidential libraries. 

Presidents open their libraries an average of four years after leaving office, writing their own history of their lives and administrations with no independent oversight from disinterested historians. But their records – what really happened, and what they really did, and why – won’t be opened for 100 years or more, due to conscious choices about budgets and priorities made by Congress and NARA. The core mission of presidential libraries is to preserve and make presidential records available, and THE LAST CAMPAIGN demonstrates how – and why – NARA is failing that mission.

Spending and focus aren’t the only factors that ensure we don’t know what presidents do. The laws that govern presidential records are flawed, and have had the opposite effect that the well-meaning reformers who wrote them intended, which was prompt, open access for all. THE LAST CAMPAIGN analyzes what went wrong, how the system became so politicized and off-track, and what can be done to fix it.

Nixon’s Secret Library Plan may be the most extreme example – that we know about – of how far presidents will go to enshrine their legacy, but it isn’t the only one. Late on his last night in office, George H.W. Bush signed an unlawful agreement with Don Wilson, Archivist of the United States, to take control of White House electronic records. After word got out, Wilson – who already was under federal investigation – resigned to run Bush’s private presidential library foundation. Clark sheds new light on this and other controversies, weaving stories documented from the presidential libraries with accounts of his own attempts to reform the system – which the foundations, pressuring NARA, blocked.

Does the conduct of presidents past have any relation to the conduct of presidents current and future? Does the record of what they did, what they didn’t do, what they ought to do, and why, make any difference in our lives?





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