Blogs > Cliopatria > The Nixon Library's Watergate Exhibit

Apr 11, 2011 9:24 pm

The Nixon Library's Watergate Exhibit

In the L.A. Times last week, Jon Weiner reviewed the Nixon Library’s new Watergate exhibit. Weiner hailed the library not only for telling the story in a comprehensive fashion, but for doing so “with authority and rich detail, mobilizing up-to-the-minute interactive technology that might even engage middle school students brought here on tours.”

The praise is well-deserved: the exhibit is quite extraordinary. It provides the necessary historical context—regarding both Nixon’s previous abuses of power and the historical legacy of why Watergate mattered. It features a variety of documents, tape snippets, and oral histories, with figures ranging from George Schultz to Robert Bork to Leonard Garment.

The result is something that will provide new information for virtually anyone interested in Watergate. Take, for instance, the section on the battle for the tapes’ release, which features nearly 20 oral history excerpts with some TV snippets from the era and a classic Dean-Nixon conversation. Or the opening section, which examines Nixon’s conspiracy thinking, and combines a rich array of documents (like Bob Haldeman’s handwritten notes from a Nixon meeting outlining the rationale for the enemies’ list), tape excerpts, and oral histories. Just as significant, all of this material is available on-line, to an extent unprecedented in anything from any of the presidential libraries. That will help bring a primary-source rich approach to Watergate into high school social studies classes (and to a much lesser extent college, given the diminution of U.S. political history faculty and offerings).

The exhibit's strength becomes all the more apparent in comparison with what it replaced. Before the National Archives administered the Nixon Library, the Library had its own version of Watergate—which amounted to Watergate as Nixon’s family and friends wished things had occurred. (The current exhibit has a link to this imagined reality.) The old exhibit operates under the thesis that it is “irrefutable” that “President Nixon was in no way connected with this attempted ‘third-rate burglary.’” The Foundation's narrative attacks John Dean, introduces Sam Ervin as the man who “just nine years earlier would have denied equal protection under the law with his vote against the landmark Civil Rights Act,” and charges that “Kennedy protégé Archibald Cox” headed a special prosecutor’s office whose objectivity was in “serious doubt.”

The Nixon Foundation greeted the new exhibit with a blog post from Anne Walker, wife of the foundation chairman. Walker faulted the Library for not effectively representing the true victims of the affair—Nixon and his advisors. (She recalled “the days of reading about our pals in the Washington Post every day, seeing them accused and vilified.”) In a bizarre argument, Walker suggested that critical Watergate defendants didn’t commit wrongdoing, since they were merely convicted of perjury. “Anyone,” she reasoned, “would eventually perjure themselves after countless grand jury sessions,” at which people are asked things like “how much you paid for a ham sandwich on a specific lunch hour.”

Walker’s contentions, of course, are ludicrous. But they also starkly illustrate a tension within the Presidential Libraries and Museums system. Presidential libraries have two constituencies—the public on the one hand, and the President’s family and closest friends and supporters (who help fund the libraries’ facilities) on the other.

A best-case scenario would be figures such as Lady Bird Johnson and former LBJ Library director Harry McPherson. Both were committed to preserving Lyndon Johnson’s legacy—but believed that the best way to do so came through honesty with the public and ensuring that scholars had full access to the available documents in the LBJ Library. The Nixon Foundation approach clearly represents the other extreme--Walker's blog post wildly portrays Nixon Library director Tim Naftali as coordinating a conspiracy designed to spread in the media unflattering (but accurate) quotes from Nixon. (It could be said, I suppose, that Nixon's associates have unusual expertise on the issue of conspiracies.)

In the case of the Nixon Library, the National Archives clearly did the right thing, and made sure that historical accuracy trumped the family's concerns. But the affair should be a reminder that scholars need to be constantly vigilant about protecting the integrity of the presidential libraries system.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Les Baitzer - 4/12/2011

KC, you provide a rather scorching assessment, albeit probably accurate, of the Nixon Library, but give effusive praise to the LBJ Library, writing, "Both [Lady Bird Johnson and former LBJ Library director Harry McPherson] were committed to preserving Lyndon Johnson’s legacy—but believed that the best way to do so came through honesty with the public ..."

The authors of this History News Network Staff article, "LBJ's Lies About His War Record" might disagree. HNN reports that "The Johnson Library stands by Johnson’s account."

A more thorough account, "LBJ’s Silver Star: The Mission That Never Was" is here:

And although purely anecdotal, to any Air Force veteran, the idea that a passenger on an airplane would receive a Silver Start for events that supposedly took place on a mission while the entire aircrew of the airplane on that mission received no citations, is risible in the extreme.