Timothy Naftali: Lauded for redesigning the Nixon Library

Historians in the News

"I can't run a shrine," says [Timothy Naftali] the man who ordered the demolition [of the old Watergate exhibit at the Nixon library, which claimed that Nixon was done in by enemies] .... Named last year as the library's first federal director, the Harvard-trained historian is guiding the library's shift from a privately run facility — the only modern presidential library not part of the federal system — to an institution that bears the National Archives' imprimatur.

In effect, that means transforming the black sheep of presidential libraries into an institution that will eventually be entrusted with the vast trove of Nixon's White House material that the government seized in the 1970s, fearing its destruction.

A stylishly dressed, excitable man possessed of rapid speech and animated hands, Naftali is standing with a cup of coffee in what the wreckers left of the Watergate exhibit: an empty room, the walls big and blank and coated with primer. For Naftali, a Cold War scholar and expert in presidential recordings, it represents a cleared canvas.

Several months ago, Naftali approached the Nixon Foundation's director, John Taylor, a former Nixon aide who helped write the zealously pro-Nixon text of the original Watergate exhibit, and announced his intention of tearing the exhibit down.

"I said, 'In order to start the process of reforming...' " Naftali says, then chooses a more diplomatic word: " 'Changing the museum, I need to begin with Watergate.' "

Naftali, who gave up his job at the University of Virginia to take this post, presents himself as neither a hater of the 37th president nor an apologist for him. Although he freely dispenses political opinions — in his blog, he has inveighed against warrantless spying and nominated President Bush as "one of the worst presidents of the last century" — he is tactfully tight-lipped about Nixon.

He will happily tick off Nixonian achievements — in foreign policy, the environment, civil rights — that he wants visitors to learn about at the library. Yet asked for a general assessment of Nixon, the kind scholars love to give, he smiles and says, "Who?"...

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