Noisy Library: Our Long National Nightmare Still Isn't Over

By Bates, Stephen | The Wilson Quarterly, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Noisy Library: Our Long National Nightmare Still Isn't Over


Bates, Stephen, The Wilson Quarterly


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."

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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. …

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