David Greenberg: Under attack from long-time director of the Nixon Foundation

Historians in the News

[John H. Taylor is Executive Director, Nixon Foundation.]

“It’s the opposite of truth” – in other words, a lie – to say that the famous 18 and a half-minute gap on a Watergate tape could have resulted from a mechanical malfunction rather than deliberate erasure.

So claims historian David Greenberg. Not a stretch, mind you; not a controversial -- or even a ridiculous -- assertion. A lie.

In fact, some experts did say that the erasures might have been accidental. The manufacturer of Rose Mary Woods’s famous Uher 5000 tape recorder said that it was possible that pushing the rewind button on the specially-modified unit, as the President’s personal secretary did frequently while transcribing the tapes, could have caused gaps. Meanwhile, an expert who examined the machine for a Federal judge testified that his team had tightened screws and connections and even replaced and thrown away a defective part which had evidently caused the machine to make a buzzing sound.

Many feel that President Nixon might have erased the tape to eliminate potentially embarrassing disclosures. He denied doing so, and his aide’s handwritten notes reveal nothing of particular interest from that portion of the meeting. In any event, it isn’t a lie to say that other theories exist. It would indeed be a lie to say they don’t.

Professor Greenberg made his unscholarly comment to the Associated Press last week as the private Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace was becoming the National Archives-run Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. The Library’s first Federal director, Tim Naftali, is implementing an agreement between the Nixon Foundation and the National Archives that the first order of business is removing the old Watergate gallery and installing what NARA promises will be a strictly neutral account.

Greenberg, among a group of scholars who unsuccessfully opposed the Nixon Library handover after the Nixon Foundation cancelled a Vietnam conference to which they had been invited in 2005, went on to say, “There was a lot...in the library, which was not a matter of interepretation, but was flat wrong, a lie.” Perhaps Greenberg fails to grasp the difference between correct and politically correct. In the prevaling culture it’s not easy to argue that Mr. Nixon’s Watergate misdeeds were overblown and many of his opponents politically motivated, as the old gallery did. But as far as some scholars and journalists are concerned, it’s a crime even to try. So at Naftali’s request, the Nixon Foundation authorized him to destroy the old Watergate gallery four months before this week’s handover. We also gave his archivists permission to process documents and tapes for release this week even though they didn’t even belong to the government yet.

The Foundation’s gestures, which enabled massive NARA document and tape openings on July 11, the day of the official handover, won generous praise from the Archivist of the United States, Allen Weinstein (whom President Bush jovially and correctly calls “Mr. Access”). They won this reaction from scholar Greenberg: “[W]ill [the Nixon Foundation] continue to throw up roadblocks for scholars?”

Greenberg knows we’re not throwing up roadblocks for scholars. He knows that over the last decade thousands of hours of tapes and hundreds of thousands of pages of records were opened at the Nixon Project in College Park, Maryland, without a single objection from Mr. Nixon’s family or estate. He knows that the documents and tapes will be under ironclad government control at the Nixon Library. He knows that the Nixon Foundation has given the National Archives a massive cache of political documents and tapes that the courts said we could’ve kept forever.

But the relationship between the Nixon extended family and the scholarly community since his resignation has been 33 years of bad road. Mr. Nixon would have been the first to say that he gave as good as he got when it came to the American intelligensia; hence, perhaps, their practiced skepticism. So newly available documents and tapes weren’t enough for some scholars and reporters as the new Nixon Library prepared to open its doors. They required an act of public expiation and sanctification, namely the smiting of the beast of the old Nixon Library Watergate gallery, that last lonely place where the lingering possibility flickered of a malfunctioning Uher 5000.

Los Angeles Times reporter Christopher Goffard dwelt lovingly on the destruction in a July 8 article, even ennumerating the tools curators used: “Hammers, a crowbar, a screw gun and a Sawzall.” His demolition fixation was obvious when he interviewed me several weeks ago. “Were you there when they destroyed it?” he asked coaxingly. “Didn’t you want to watch? You must’ve wanted to keep something from the wreckage, something to remind you of the way it used to be.” Gofford’s published account seemed to describe an act of secular liturgy, an offering on the altar of academe, the last group in American society resembling a purity cult. Today the Watergate gallery is dark and empty, stripped to the bare walls. The public and media and especially the professorial high priests can see for themselves that the Nixon Library has finally been washed clean – the price President Nixon’s family and friends needed to pay before his Library could finally be admitted to the fraternity honoring all the paragons of high achievement and moral purity represented in the Presidential library system, which starts with Herbert Hoover and goes through Bill Clinton.

It was a price worth paying. Foundation and NARA officials were united in a sense of satisfaction and pride as the doors of the new Nixon Library reading room were opened for the first time. With the Library finally part of the Federal system, we may hope that the torch is being passed to a generation of scholars and observers with open minds. As they come to Yorba Linda to study in the shadow of the little white house where the 37th President was born and yards away from where his 82-year journey ended, it’s exciting to wonder about the discoveries they’ll make and conclusions they’ll reach about a complex, gifted statesman in a corrosive, momentous time.

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