Our long national nightmare still isn’t over.
When a presidency ends, the campaign for history’s approbation begins. The battleground is often the president’s official library, according to Benjamin Hufbauer, the author of Presidential Temples: How Memorials and Libraries Shape Public Memory (2005). In the library devoted to his life, Richard M. Nixon seems to be losing this final campaign. Forty years after the break-in, Watergate remains the decisive, divisive issue.
When it opened in 1990, the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, California, was funded and operated by the private Richard Nixon Foundation. Bob Bostock, who helped Nixon research two of his post-presidency books, wrote the text of the original Watergate exhibit in the library, and the former president gave it his blessing: “Bob—A brilliant presentation.” The exhibit was unapologetically partisan, declaring that “even complete disclosure would not be enough to satisfy those who wanted Nixon’s head.” Then, in 2007, the National Archives took over the library. Bostock’s handiwork was removed, and an extensive new exhibit opened in 2011. In The Journal of American History (December 2011), Hufbauer lauds it as “the most detailed account ever given of a scandal in a presidential museum,” one that makes “a significant original contribution to scholarship.”
To Bostock, the new exhibit is not only “very biased against President Nixon,” but also contravenes the spirit of presidential libraries. “There are lots of sources people can consult for critical analysis of a presidency,” he said in an interview. “The beauty of these libraries is that they give that president’s perspective. Go to the FDR Library and see what they have on the internment of the Japanese—not a lot. One might wonder whether interning tens of thousands of people without cause might be a greater constitutional violation than 17 wiretaps. . . . The Kennedy Library takes a very hagiographic approach. There’s virtually nothing on the Bay of Pigs, nothing on his medical issues.”
If Nixon is the only president excoriated by his own presidential library, there’s a reason. Earlier presidents treated their records as personal property. They decided what to turn over to the National Archives, what to keep, and what to torch. Nixon figured he’d get the same opportunity. Instead, four months after his resignation in 1974, Congress passed a law decreeing that his White House materials—42 million pages of documents and 880 recordings—were government property. Had Nixon held on to his records, it’s a safe bet that the most damning items, such as the 1971 tapes in which he is heard ordering aides to find out how many Bureau of Labor Statistics officials are Jewish, would never have seen the light of day.
In another first, the 1974 law instructed the National Archives to reveal “the full truth . . . of the abuses of governmental power popularly identified under the generic term ‘Watergate.’ ” So the National Archives got a uniquely unvarnished documentary account of a presidency and a directive to focus on the worst of it—hence the Nixon Library’s current Watergate exhibit.
Even so, Bostock believes that the exhibit falls short: It lacks the context necessary for grasping “the full truth” about Watergate. “You’d think Nixon was the only guy who ever wiretapped, the only guy who ever thought about using the IRS [against adversaries], the only guy who ever thought about going after leaks,” he said. “These had been standard operating procedure under previous presidents. . . . Nixon himself had been the victim—his campaign plane was bugged in 1968. This is not to excuse it, but to understand Watergate, you’ve got to know all these other things.”
For altogether different reasons, some of Nixon’s long-standing critics also decry an overemphasis on Watergate. By e-mail, linguist and leftist Noam Chomsky dismissed Watergate as “insignificant.” In his view, the break-in “probably became an issue because [Nixon] irritated people with power,” such as Establishment Democrats McGeorge Bundy, the national security adviser in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and Thomas Watson Jr., the head of IBM. “It’s okay to slaughter Cambodians ... but not to call McGeorge Bundy, Thomas Watson, and other worthies bad names,” Chomsky wrote.
The unending feud over the import of Watergate reinforces an observation President Nixon made on August 7, 1974, the day before he announced his resignation. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had assured him, “History will treat you more kindly than your contemporaries.” Nixon responded, “It depends on who writes the history.”