The Real Nixon
Finally on Display
April 15, 2011
Here’s what’s going on in a land far away but not so far apart from the Mitten …
This year, all the former-president fuss has been about Ronald Reagan. I suppose that’s not surprising, considering that he would have turned 100. But I’m already a bit bored with marking his centennial. So many articles, blogs and cable news tributes.
Needless to say, I was thrilled a couple of weeks ago to see a different former president (also from the crazy state of California) prominently featured on the LA Times homepage: Richard Nixon.
The article wasn’t exactly celebrating Nixon’s legacy, as most of the Reagan stories seem to do for the Gipper. No, this Nixon piece was announcing a brand new, highly controversial exhibit opening at the Nixon Library and Museum: The Watergate Gallery.
At a cost of $500,000 and created under the leadership of the National Archives (until 2007 the place was run by private donors and Nixon loyalists), this new, permanent, multi-media exhibit offers the museum’s first non-whitewashed version of Nixon’s role in the Watergate epic. In other words, it provides historical accuracy instead of carrying on with the Nixon-favoring spin that’s been on display since the museum opened in 1990.
The new gallery has been described as a “raw” and “detailed” presentation of an important chapter of American history. It stands in such sharp contrast to the museum’s former Watergate exhibit that it provoked an irate 132-page letter of objection from The Nixon Foundation.
That piqued my curiosity.
Having been born in the post-Nixon era, Watergate is the only association I have with his name and administration. I knew he had also opened up relations with China by making a historic visit. I also was aware he played a role in both expanding and ending the Vietnam War. But that was the extent of my knowledge, and I looked forward to learning more from visiting the library/museum in Yorba Linda, his small hometown between LA and San Diego. Amusingly enough, it’s just a few miles from The Happiest Place on Earth (otherwise known as Disneyland).
I was a little concerned to see “What Would Nixon Do?” t-shirts on prominent display in the gift shop. I sensed that wasn’t a joke to many of the people working there. But after a tour of the former president’s Marine One helicopter (including posing for the obligatory photo of me standing in the doorway waving a final goodbye), his birthplace and his gravesite, I was warmed up to learn more about this odd but important historical figure.
Apart from the unsurprising pro-Nixon bias present throughout the museum, I had to admit the museum was fascinating. Nixon was president during the first moon landing?! One of his daughters married an Eisenhower grandson?! I had no idea. There were so many impressive historical artifacts on display — even a large section of the Berlin Wall.
But after making my way through all of the various Nixon-glorifying, He’s-Not-a-Bad-Guy-He’s-Just-Misunderstood exhibits, I began to get antsy for the other side of the story…the real Watergate story.
The new exhibit was a welcome contrast and strong finale. It signaled there would be no further need to choke down the sugar-coated, rose-colored vision of Nixon’s reality. This was the real deal — and it was easy to see why Nixon loyalists were so upset by its installation. It goes into painstaking detail about the tapes, the 18 ½ minute gap, the smoking gun, the infamous Enemies List and all of the other shady activities going on at the time.
To fully appreciate the new exhibit, though, it’s necessary to understand the original version (still available online at the Nixon Library’s website). It characterized the Watergate issue as a politically motivated “coup” by Democrats and the media to steal back the presidency. It pointed fingers, made excuses galore and boldly glossed over plenty of facts.
The tone of the text was as paranoid as Nixon himself. Written by a former Nixon aide, Bob Bostock, the language of the old exhibit had a clear purpose: “My ultimate goal in this exhibit is this,” Bostock said, “that people will walk away from it, shaking their heads, wondering how the nation ever let such a great president be taken away from them.”
Before it opened in 1990, Nixon approved the language and called it brilliant. And until now, that’s been the only story on display.
When the National Archives took control in 2007, and public funds entered the picture, new museum director Timothy Naftali set in motion the four-year project to create the new, historically accurate Watergate gallery. As The New York Times pointed out, Naftali — the non-Republican, non-Nixon loyalist, gay Canadian — acknowledges he doesn’t exactly fit the mold of the sort of person Nixon might have imagined would be in charge of presenting his legacy. It’s not surprising to find out that Naftali has clashed at times with The Nixon Foundation.
Although Naftali and the new exhibit have certainly ruffled their fair share of feathers in Nixon circles, they have also held their ground and earned respect from people like longtime Nixon aide John Taylor, one of the people who ultimately decided the new exhibit should go up. Taylor said, “If we’re really sure the president over time will be seen as the great president some of us believe he is, we can’t be afraid of what someone might say that’s critical.”
However belated, it’s a good start.