Timothy Naftali: Expat Canadian takes reins of Nixon Library

Historians in the News

It took a transplanted Canadian to do it, but the warts and blemishes return to Richard Nixon's whitewashed place in history today.

The shrine to America's most shamed president here officially moves from private to federal hands under the guidance of 45-year-old Timothy Naftali, a Montreal-born historian and expert on presidential recordings.

Naftali is transforming the homage to Nixon from what critics had disparaged as a Disneyland-type tourist trap into an honest historical look at the life and career of the only U.S. president to resign in scandal.

He did it by meticulously dismantling an exhibit on Watergate that described the event as a "coup'' by Nixon's enemies, rather than the event that defined Nixon's life and legacy and in many ways the way Americans looked at presidents and the powerful.

Like Nixon himself, the exhibit did not go easily, metaphorically clinging to its cherished wing in the private library much as the 37th president did before his 1974 resignation.

"I'm a historian. I can't sugar-coat things,'' he said. "History is messy, dramatic, exciting. There are good people and bad people and that's what makes it interesting.

"You have to tell history with the bark off.''...

A one-time aide to Quebec premier Robert Bourassa, he left Canada over Quebec's language legislation.

"It seemed to me that the deck was stacked against civil liberties and I preferred to be in a country where I didn't have to worry about what language I spoke,'' he said.

He is now an American. But he will always be a Montrealer.

As he waxed about Nixon and presidential tapes and transcripts over coffee in downtown Los Angeles recently, he also spoke wistfully about Montreal bagels and his late, lamented love, the Montreal Expos.

"This was a great challenge,'' he said. "I didn't want people saying I was replacing one view of Watergate with my own, whatever mine happened to be.

"People deserve a 360 degree view of a subject as controversial and as important to a country as Watergate.''

He will give visitors the tools to come to their own conclusions about the greatest scandal in modern American political history....

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