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Nixon's Presidential Library: The Last Battle of Watergate

Who controls the Nixon Library? A dispute over how to tell the story of his presidency raises questions about the purpose, and legitimacy, of presidential libraries.

Should the National Archives be in the business of presenting objective public history at the nation’s presidential libraries? Or should the private organizations that fund many of these institutions be able to lionize their man in the White House? In an exclusive from the upcoming issue of Miller-McCune magazine, learn how the fractious new partnership between the Archives and the foundation intent on rehabilitating Richard Nixon’s legacy has become the issue’s bellwether.

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Even before Bob Bostock saw the new Watergate exhibit at the Nixon Presidential Library, he knew he would hate it.

He had been a Nixon loyalist since the age of 14, when, as a political junkie “counter to the counterculture,” he campaigned for Tricky Dick’s 1972 reelection out of a storefront office in Hackensack, New Jersey. Later, Bostock worked as an aide to the post-presidential Nixon and wrote the text of the original Watergate display, which opened along with the library itself in 1990.

His Watergate gallery covered most of the familiar topics—the break-in at the Democratic National Committee, the 18-and-a-half-minute gap in the White House tapes, the “smoking gun” recording that led to Nixon’s resignation. But his version, vetted by Nixon himself, was seen by many academic historians as an effort not just to tell Nixon’s side of the story, but to bring about a wholesale shift in public perception of the scandal. Bostock heaped blame on the Democrats, and included a quote in the exhibit suggesting that The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein may have offered bribes to obtain their scoops.

It has been almost five years since the public last saw the display. In the interim, the library and its museum have been transformed from a strictly private institution controlled by Nixon’s old entourage into a private-public partnership overseen by the National Archives and Records Administration, as are the 12 other presidential libraries. Nixon’s presidential papers, which had been sequestered in a government facility in College Park, Maryland, have now been sent to the library in Yorba Linda, California, and the process of opening them to academic researchers and the public has been accelerated considerably.

Achieving this required a change in legislation and years of negotiation between the government and the Richard Nixon Foundation, representing the president’s family, friends, and loyal aides. Under the deal they brokered, the old Watergate gallery was the first thing to go—even before the federal government formally took over and Tim Naftali, a respected Cold War historian, was installed as the library’s director.

It was also the first exhibit that Naftali set out to replace. The new gallery, he promised, would tell the Watergate story without partisan spin, drawing on the rich, if unflattering, material on the scandal now available from Nixon’s presidential archive.

To Bostock, that was when everything went to hell. He suggested keeping the old display as an artifact to show alongside the new one, and he offered to record an oral history of how his exhibit had been put together. But Naftali “pretty much blew me off,” he recalled. “As a historian, I would have thought that was something he would be interested in doing.”

Bostock’s disgruntlement turned to indignation, as months, and then years, went by without a new exhibit. As he and the other Nixon loyalists involved with the library heard more about Naftali’s plans for the new gallery—a full oral history, spiced with extracts from the White House tapes and court records—they began to see Naftali as someone bent on denigrating Nixon’s reputation, and started fighting back. “Instead of an unapologetic tribute,” Bostock said of the gallery, “it’s now an unapologetic attack.”

Bob Bostock

Bob Bostock

He was far from the only one to turn on Naftali. John Taylor, the head of the foundation, who had been Nixon’s post-presidential chief of staff, clashed with Naftali repeatedly and all but ceased face-to-face communication. More than a quarter of the library’s volunteer docents quit during Naftali’s first three years on the job; they evidently did not appreciate his efforts to introduce them, through the White House tapes, to the Plumbers and to Nixon’s anti-Semitic rants. Susan Naulty, who worked for the foundation for years as the library’s archivist, said in 2009 that the National Archives takeover of the reading room and archives reminded her of the destruction of Carthage by the Romans, “who, if my memory serves me right, poured salt over the ground after leveling the city.”

John Taylor called the standoff “the last battle of Watergate.”

The new exhibit finally opened last spring, to scathing reviews by loyal Nixon supporters and raves by just about everyone else. Many in the Nixon camp saw it as a betrayal and bridled at the idea that a presidential library should be so openly critical of its subject. “It’s not hard to find stuff that talks about Watergate from an anti-Nixon point of view,” Bostock argued. “But there are very few places where you can find it told from a pro-Nixon point of view.”

Soon after, one docent wrote a widely publicized resignation letter characterizing Naftali as a “Manchurian” director who had all but desecrated the graves of Richard and Pat Nixon. And Bruce Herschensohn, a former deputy special assistant in the Nixon White House, asked the library to return his personal papers; he donated them instead to Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, where he teaches in the School of Public Policy.

The interests of the National Archives, responsible for managing records and providing access to historians, have a tendency to run counter to those of the private foundations that establish and help support presidential libraries, which mostly want to lionize their man in the Oval Office.

But Nixon’s is the most hotly contested legacy, because Watergate resulted in unique circumstances that put his records under lock and key. As soon as Nixon resigned, Congress passed the 1974 Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act, which made sure Nixon and his associates could not lay hands on the White House documents that were most embarrassing to them.

The law, along with follow-up legislation that tightened the rules for government ownership of all presidential papers, aimed to prevent a corrupt administration from destroying the evidence of its handiwork. But the new laws also formalized Nixon’s status as an outcast, frustrating his supporters’ desire to rehabilitate his reputation and to give the more admirable aspects of his presidency their due. In many ways, because of the new legislative framework, the honesty of every other presidential legacy came at the price of Nixon’s enduring shame.

This battle of Watergate has been a debate about the wisdom and fairness of that, and about what should happen now that the Nixon library has come in from the cold. Should the National Archives be in the business of offering objective public history at all of the country’s presidential libraries, or at none of them? Is Nixon the one president about whom the government must insist on total impartiality?

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When Tim Naftali first learned, in 2006, that the Nixon Foundation had put him on a list of acceptable candidates for the library director job, he laughed. He knew why his name had surfaced: the previous year, he had been invited to the library to talk about Blind Spot, his history of counterterrorism in the United States, which included a positive appraisal of Nixon’s record in that area.

But he also ran the Presidential Recordings Program at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, and was familiar with Nixon’s darker side from the White House tapes.

Naftali did not lack for credentials: educated at Yale and Harvard, the 44-year-old Canadian-born scholar had written books on George H. W. Bush and the Cuban missile crisis, served as a consultant to the 9/11 Commission, and researched links between U.S. intelligence and Nazi war criminals. His temperament was hardly suited to the keepers of the Nixon flame: an independent thinker, Naftali prided himself on seeing past political crosscurrents to follow the documentary evidence. And while he did not set out to do further damage to Nixon’s reputation, as his critics later charged, he was concerned with protecting the National Archives and making sure the government was not seen to be excusing bigotry or criminality in the Nixon White House.

“If the foundation had done their due diligence, they might not have been so enthusiastic about me,” he said. In fact, the more he listened to the Watergate tapes, the more convinced he became that Nixon was the modern era’s “worst president” because he perverted the national security apparatus for his own interests. “How could the U.S. government run a library that celebrates this man?” he later asked.

After discussing the offer with Allen Weinstein, then the head of the National Archives, Naftali began to see the post as a tremendous opportunity. At the time, many historians worried that Congress’s 2004 decision to admit the Nixon library into the official fold could put the integrity of the presidential papers at risk again. It had been difficult enough for Stanley Kutler, a Nixon scholar at the University of Wisconsin, to pry the bulk of the Watergate tapes out of the National Archives in the 1990s—he had to sue for them. Now the historians worried that a new library director based in Yorba Linda would cozy up to the foundation and keep the rest of the archives sealed indefinitely.

Weinstein was determined not to let that happen and convinced Naftali it was almost a duty to take the job, which he started in October 2006, nine months before the official handover.

Naftali soon learned that the Nixon Foundation wasn’t as cohesive as it appeared. Nixon’s daughters, Julie Nixon Eisenhower and Tricia Nixon, had feuded for years over control of a $19 million bequest from their father’s friend Bebe Rebozo. In 2005, shortly after sealing a preliminary agreement with Washington on ceding control of the library, the foundation canceled an academic conference on the Vietnam War it had agreed to cosponsor, citing last-minute concerns that the speaker lineup was too critical of Nixon. Days before the government was due to take over, in 2007, the foundation tried to renegotiate the agreement, relenting, according to Naftali, only when told that the Archives would distribute a press release announcing that the deal had collapsed entirely.

While the foundation needed the government’s money—one reason, many observers said, why it ceded control in the first place—the National Archives expected some financial support in return, for exhibits and special events. That was the private-public partnership model established at other presidential libraries. John Taylor, then the head of the foundation, initially promised Naftali this funding, including tens of thousands of dollars for an oral-history project that was later incorporated into the Watergate exhibit. But by the time Naftali became the library’s director, he was wary of Taylor’s pledges. “I made sure that I could run the place without foundation money,” he said. He drew on the library’s trust fund, fed principally by ticket sales, to meet most of his costs.

His instincts were right. The foundation started cutting off discretionary funds after Elizabeth Drew, a journalist who had written critical books about both Nixon and Watergate, was invited to speak at the library weeks before the official takeover in 2007. The foundation had agreed to broaden the library’s speaker list beyond Nixon apologists and Fox News hosts, but did not appreciate that Drew and Naftali changed the venue at the last minute to the Los Angeles Public Library. Naftali, in turn, saw the foundation’s objections—which he said began before the change of venue—as a sign that it could not tolerate real criticism of Nixon. And so plans to co-fund and share public programming were quickly iced.

Soon, the institution became an eerie simulacrum of Cold War Berlin. The foundation retreated to its designated spaces—the replica of the White House East Room, which it used for receptions; its offices; the gift shop; and the house on the eastern edge of the property where Nixon was born in 1913. Naftali retained control of the museum space, the archives, and his own staff offices; he spurned an offer to build an integrated website with the foundation, because, he said, it would “undermine our efforts at rebranding.”

Now faced with a common enemy, the Nixon supporters stopped feuding among themselves and complained repeatedly to the Archives’ administrative offices in Washington that Naftali was antagonizing them. One such complaint came when library docents were shown a picture of Naftali smiling next to a shredder from the offices of CREEP, the Committee to Re-Elect the President. The foundation also threatened to take out a court injunction to forestall changes Naftali envisaged for the library’s educational space.

Publicly, the foundation denied there was any problem—Sandy Quinn, then its spokesman, acknowledged only “the natural whitewater of an early relationship.” But Naftali was concerned enough to tell his bosses in Washington that he would rather resign than yield to the pressure. “Loyalty is a stronger glue than agreement over the facts,” Naftali told me. “They could never forgive the person who put up an honest Watergate exhibit.”

Relations sank to their lowest point in 2009, when Naftali invited John Dean to speak on the anniversary of the Watergate break-in. Nixon loyalists had never forgiven the former White House counsel for testifying against his administration colleagues—Bostock likened his treachery to that of Judas or Brutus—and they viewed this invitation as the ultimate insult. “I think the Clinton folks would react much the same way if Ken Starr was asked to speak at the Clinton library,” Bostock said.

Foundation leaders suggested adding a speaker to debate Dean. They also suggested recording the talk, so they could rebut his arguments point for point. But Naftali and Dean turned them down; no other speaker had been subjected to such strictures, Naftali explained. So the loyalists went public with their criticisms, both on an in-house blog and in the editorial pages of the Washington Times, and the foundation cut off all remaining funding for joint projects at the library.

By then, though, the foundation’s united front had started to crack. Shortly before the Dean controversy, in February 2009, John Taylor left his director position to work full time as the vicar of a nearby Episcopalian church, and his wife, Kathy O’Connor, became his acting replacement. She established a more fruitful working relationship with Naftali, but quickly met a wall of resistance from some at the foundation because she expressed understanding for the Dean invitation. Naftali said she was called a “wimp” in a meeting he attended and effectively frozen out by her foundation colleagues. She did not apply for the permanent executive director job; Ron Walker, the advance man for Nixon’s groundbreaking trip to China in 1972, was hired as Taylor’s successor instead.

According to Naftali, Taylor not only dropped his previous animus, but reached out to apologize. “The foundation so mistreated his wife that maybe he understood how he had mistreated me,” Naftali said.

“Tim and I clashed on and off for months,” Taylor told me. “Toward the end of my time at the foundation, we weren’t communicating very often or very well. … I’ve apologized to Tim for failing to do my part to establish a cordial working relationship.”

Taylor’s change of attitude was strikingly swift—a symptom of his distaste for the more aggressive Nixon loyalists who now ran the foundation and, to him, seemed determined to give Naftali a harder time than he had. By the summer of 2009, Taylor was calling Naftali a “visionary young Cold War scholar”; he later wrote on his blog, The Episconixonian: “Naftali is an empiricist and a civil libertarian who loves his country. He and Nixon would probably have found relatively little to disagree about in either domestic or international affairs.”

Taylor’s former Nixon associates didn’t see things that way. Bob Bostock wrote on the foundation’s blog that Naftali would be better suited to directing a library dedicated to Alger Hiss, the convicted Cold War spy whose prosecution was the making of Richard Nixon’s early congressional career. Susan Naulty likened Naftali’s tenure to a partisan of the Irish Republican Army overseeing the British royal archives. One docent was overheard calling Naftali, who is openly gay, a “fag.”

In the spring of 2010, just as Naftali was ready to show the foundation his new Watergate exhibit, his boss, Sharon Fawcett, the assistant archivist for presidential libraries, granted the foundation an extended review period, even though this meant delaying the opening by several months. The foundation, sensing an opportunity to make itself heard, produced a withering 132-page, point-by-point takedown of Naftali’s work. The committee for this job included Bob Bostock and Sandy Quinn, as well as two of the president’s closest advisers—former Appointments Secretary Dwight Chapin and Frank Gannon, who was with Nixon on Air Force One when he flew away from the White House on August 9, 1974.

The committee complained that the Watergate presentation was not “fair and balanced,” and that it all but excised Nixon’s own point of view. They weren’t arguing that other presidents had behaved as badly as Nixon, they said, but “such things as warrantless wiretaps, FBI background checks, and IRS audits against political opponents—not to mention the taping of conversations—were neither originated by nor unique to the Nixon Administration.”

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Sharon Fawcett had a history with Nixon’s archives: her former husband, who had preceded her in the presidential-libraries job, was named in the lawsuit filed by the historian Stanley Kutler and the activist organization Public Citizen in 1992 to gain release of the full set of Nixon’s White House tapes.

By the time Fawcett took over the job herself, in 2004, she had developed a reputation for encouraging maximum cooperation between the National Archives and all the private library foundations. “The contributions of these support organizations,” she told Congress in 2007, “spell the difference between static repositories and lively, vital centers of scholarship and service to the public.”

Her critics, however, accused her of perpetuating a conflict of interest that made it too easy for former administrations, Nixon’s above all, to keep sensitive documents out of the public domain and compromised the integrity of the National Archives in the presentation of presidential history. “We all know how Sharon Fawcett … favors former presidents, their heirs, and the private foundations,” Anthony Clark, a scholar specializing in presidential libraries, wrote on his blog in 2009. Fawcett, Clark said, didn’t want to jeopardize the government’s access to the foundations’ money. At two libraries—Truman’s and Reagan’s—directors under her leadership served simultaneously as heads of the presidents’ foundations, a practice that has since ceased.

When the controversy over the new Watergate exhibit erupted, Fawcett was thrust into the role of peacemaker. Often, according to several sources, she butted heads with Naftali, who felt she was cutting the Nixon Foundation too much slack. When I spoke with her, she did not criticize the library director directly, but she did suggest that Naftali came to the job with things to learn. The Archives and the presidential library foundations “have a symbiotic relationship … and we need to share what we are doing,” she said. “Tim is an excellent historian with a great reputation. We had many discussions about the nature of public history, as opposed to a historian writing and publishing a book. It’s not quite the same.”

Fawcett said she and her staff pushed Naftali to present a greater number of points of view on Watergate—including that of Nixon’s supporters. She found some of Naftali’s work judgmental and asked for changes in wording and presentation.

Naftali told me these criticisms were frequently the result of Fawcett’s lack of familiarity with the history of Watergate, and she almost always relented when he pushed back. He also accused her of overindulging the foundation, even at the risk of distorting the historical record. “Fawcett had no strategy. … [I]f the foundation refused to accept the facts, and so sought to cut deals regardless of the facts,” he charged, “she … had a hard time understanding that the foundation was trying to continue the cover-up.”

Fawcett said she was “puzzled” by this assessment. “Tim was clearly frustrated by the listening-and-vetting process,” she told me. “The foundation did not dictate content, nor did they attempt to stop the exhibit from being installed.”

Naftali flew to Washington in mid-August 2010, half expecting to hear that his Watergate gallery would have to be vastly altered. Just days before the trip, he had been put under a gag order by his bosses following publication of an article about the controversy in The New York Times.

Naftali argued directly to the new U.S. archivist, David Ferriero, that he had both a professional obligation to the truth and a legal one: the 1974 Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act specified that Nixon’s Watergate records were to be made public before the rest of his presidential papers. “I explained I could do it in no other way,” Naftali said. “And if they didn’t want it this way, I could leave.”

He insisted that the Watergate gallery’s narrative should begin with the leaking of the Pentagon Papers and the activation of the Plumbers in 1971, a year before the break-in. This was a make-or-break issue for Naftali because, he said, the scandal made sense only in light of the preexisting links between national security, the White House, and the Plumbers’ operations. The foundation disagreed; the National Archives review committee, according to Sharon Fawcett, thought Naftali’s narrative was confusing. “The foundation had its appeasers in Washington, who wanted to gut the first part of the time line,” Naftali claimed, without naming names. (Fawcett said the term appeasers was insulting.)

David Ferriero, however, sided with Naftali. He not only gave Naftali the green light, he provided about $150,000 in additional funding to expand the exhibit along a second wall. With so much extra room, Naftali added new sections covering Nixon’s post-presidential musings on Watergate, a forensic breakdown of the Watergate burglary itself, and the legislative consequences of the scandal. He told me he wrote these sections as a continuation of his original narrative, and felt they improved the display. Contrary to the foundation’s wishes, he made no changes to an existing section on the history of presidential recordings, and did not delve into previous administrations’ instances of retribution against political enemies.

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At the exhibit’s opening ceremony on March 31, 2011, Naftali singled out David Ferriero in his remarks. “Whatever the external pressures,” he said, Ferriero had been willing “to let the historical chips fall where they may.” Fawcett was given much shorter shrift.

Naftali also recognized John Taylor, calling him a friend and hugging him at the end of his speech. Taylor whispered to Naftali: “God bless you. You made my year.”

Taylor explained when I interviewed him that he felt Richard Nixon was better than any of the sniping and recriminations over his legacy. “We were with him in the trenches,” he said, “but now we have come out of the trench. Nothing we can say or do is going to prevent future generations from seeing this record.”

What would Nixon himself think of the new exhibit? Taylor thought for a moment. “He would say, ‘I’m sorry they feel they have to do that. But if it is what I have to undergo to have a fair shot at historical redemption, I can live with that.’”

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In the end, the old-guard Nixon supporters were right to think Naftali was not on their side. They were right, too, that the fundamental mission of the library was being altered; no longer would it be, in Bob Bostock’s words, “the image of a resurrected Nixon.”

But many professional historians—especially those concerned about allowing the Nixon library into the presidential system—have been cheering loudly, because they see the new exhibit as a much-needed injection of honesty about Watergate, and because the presidential papers are now on a secure track toward public release. The last batches arrived in Yorba Linda from College Park last February. At press time, some 1.4 million pages of new documents had been made available to researchers, including more than 40,000* that were previously classified and the full transcript of Nixon’s grand jury testimony. Stanley Kutler called it “a new day” at the library; Jon Wiener of the University of California, Irvine, with a nod to Gerald Ford, said: “Our long national nightmare really is over—at last.”

The spirit of glasnost has extended to other presidential libraries, suggesting a change in thinking beyond Watergate. Last February, the museum at the Reagan library corrected its most glaring omission—the Iran-Contra scandal—and added video of Reagan’s 1987 speech admitting responsibility for the controversy. The Roosevelt library in Hyde Park, New York, changed its exhibit on FDR and the Holocaust in 2005 in response to an organized protest by historians. It is now revamping its entire display to include more critical viewpoints on Pearl Harbor, the wartime internment of Japanese Americans, and the New Deal; the new version is scheduled to open in 2013.

To Sharon Fawcett, presidential library museums can, with encouragement, get better over time. “My philosophy is more about educating foundations,” she said, “not clubbing them into conformity. It’s about letting them realize that being open and fully analytical gives more credence to their museum.”

Naftali doesn’t have that kind of patience, and believes things should move faster. “The public deserves nonpartisan, objective presidential-library museums for their money,” he said at the Watergate exhibit’s opening.

Another view from the scholarly community, echoed in Anthony Clark’s writings, is that the National Archives will never be able to assert control over the foundations and is ill equipped to try; the government should focus on safeguarding presidential papers and let the foundations create whatever Disneyfied version of history they want.

The current archivist, David Ferriero, appears to lean in Naftali’s direction. A few weeks after the Watergate exhibit opened, he reorganized Sharon Fawcett’s department in the National Archives, and she opted, on short notice, to retire after almost 40 years of public service. She has since been asked to work for the Nixon Foundation as a consultant.

In November, Naftali quit his job, too. He concluded that he had achieved everything he wanted to, and is now writing a book—about Nixon’s old nemesis, John F. Kennedy.

It will be up to the library’s next director to overhaul the rest of the museum. For now, everything outside Naftali’s new Watergate gallery still feels like a Nixon’s-eye view, and Bob Bostock, for one, wants to keep it that way. “I don’t think we’ll start getting an ‘objective’ view of Nixon’s presidency until everybody who lived through it is dead,” Bostock said. “The passions from that time are incredible. And it’s still ‘that time.’”

*An earlier version of this story understated the number by a factor of 10.