Timothy Naftali: Sprucing Up Nixon

Historians in the News

... What is missing from the Nixon Library and Birthplace is an actual library. In 1974, Congress impounded forty-four million of Nixon’s Presidential papers and almost four thousand hours of his tapes. There was an entirely reasonable belief at the time that Nixon could not be trusted with his own papers. So the California library was opened, in 1990, without the documentary record of Nixon’s Presidency. It was administered not by the National Archives, which oversees the nation’s eleven other Presidential libraries, but by the Nixon family. Nixon assiduously sought possession of his papers, but the cause was subverted by the library’s first director, Hugh Hewitt, who announced that he would screen researchers for partisan compatibility; Bob Woodward, Hewitt said, would not be welcome. Hewitt is long gone (he has since made his name in conservative talk radio), and his successor, the Reverend John Taylor, a one-time Nixon factotum, made peace with the idea of dispassion in scholarship. After years of negotiations and lobbying, the National Archives finally agreed to turn over the documents. So, this fall, the Archives will take formal control of the library, relieving the family of its role (and putting an end to the squabbling for control that caused Nixon’s two daughters to stop speaking to each other). The National Archives has just hired a University of Virginia historian named Timothy Naftali to run the library and to oversee the transfer of Nixon’s records to Yorba Linda.

Naftali is a less than obvious choice. He is neither a Republican nor a Democrat. Until last year, he was a Canadian. He is an expert not on Nixon’s Presidency but on the Cold War and American counterterrorism. Nor is he a museum curator, although the ideological reëngineering of the museum may become his first task. “I’m going to give people a museum that will lay out the peaks and valleys,” he said recently, over breakfast in Washington.

Taylor concedes that the museum’s exhibits now shade toward veneration. “All of the libraries do it,” he said. “Because of President Nixon’s particular status in history, our exhibits get attention that is far more”—he paused—“acute.”

Naftali is not a keen admirer of Nixon, but he is not an acid critic, either. In his latest book, “Blind Spot,” a history of American counterterrorism, he praises Nixon for his foresight. “Nixon took terrorism very seriously,” he said. “Kissinger told him not to, but he was very concerned, very early on.”

Naftali is forty-four, and he is thin and excitable. His boss, Allen Weinstein, who is the Archivist of the United States, calls his new employee “cheerfully caustic.” Service in the federal bureaucracy may eventually cure Naftali of insouciance, but in the meantime he is happy to offer a blunt critique of President Bush. He suggested that the current Administration has many of the Nixon Administration’s vices but few of its virtues. “I think that Nixon was a pragmatic internationalist, and every great foreign-policy President has understood that you can’t do it alone,” he said.

His principal mission, he said, is to insure open access to the Nixon material at a time when, he believes, secrecy has become an executive-branch fetish. The National Archives itself has lately become entangled in a scandal: not long after 9/11, the Archives secretly agreed with the C.I.A. and the Air Force to reclassify once open documents. (Weinstein, who was not the archivist at the time, placed a moratorium on the reclassification.) Naftali says that the scandal is reminiscent of Nixon-era attitudes, and he described himself as “doubly angry.” He said, “This is a cover-up of a reclassification effort, if you can imagine such a thing.”...

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