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Cover-up of a Cover-up of a Cover-up

07/11/2007 03:37 pm 15:37:07 | Updated May 25, 2011

Today a small ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace in Yorba Linda, California will serve as a formal observance of the changing of control at the library. Since it opened in 1990, the Nixon Library has been the only privately run presidential library in the country, and from now on it will be managed under the federal auspices of the National Archives and Records Administration.

The library will finally house Nixon's presidential papers, and several scholars are welcoming the access to those materials along with other changes.

For one thing, the new director, Timothy Naftali, has also been doing a drastic makeover of the museum exhibits, all in order to reflect a "neutral, nonpartisan view of the president." In particular, he insisted upon the demolition of the infamous Watergate exhibit, a display built so durably that it took two weeks worth of hammering, crowbarring, and Sawzalling to remove it. The notorious exhibit reflected Nixon's own conspiratorial view of that dark episode. Getting rid of that Watergate gallery was the first thing on Naftali's to-do list. "Changing the museum," he said, "I need to begin with Watergate." Yet Naftali believed the Watergate gallery held some importance on its own, so he ordered that it be meticulously photographed before he had it ripped out. Future visitors to the museum will now be able to view the former museum exhibit on a plasma screen, in digitized form. By demolishing the exhibit, Naftali transformed it into an historical artifact that is now, in his view, worth preserving.

Talk about ambivalence.

Naftali's coyness and self-betraying wishy-washiness will be on display in other parts of the museum, too. The LA Times reports that Naftali describes the new version of the museum as "raising questions" instead of providing "some kind of closure that's artificial." He says that he wants to avoid "replacing one form of didacticism with another," and yet he also wants to steer clear of historical analysis. "If you brought in historians, you'd have to have one on the left, one on the right," leading to "a crossfire situation where you confuse people."

Right-o. I guess it's fitting to have a Director of the Nixon museum who speaks in double-speak about the need to avoid double-speak.

Naftali explained his reasons for demolishing the Watergate gallery and for altering other museum exhibits: "I can't run a shrine." But it seems as if the Nixon Library will now be a shrine to Naftali's career ambivalence as a federal administrator rather than revealing something particularly substantive about Richard Nixon. Why would anyone want to visit the Richard Nixon Library in order to bear witness to Naftali's interminable questions about Nixon?

I confess to having visited the old Nixon museum five or six times. It's a short twenty-minute drive from my office, and I've taken several politics classes there on field trips and also escorted some out-of-town guests into its corporate-sponsored halls. Believe me, I'm no secret admirer of Tricky Dick and all that he represented, far from it. But I will miss some of the creepy charms of the old Nixon museum. Sure, housing presidential papers and allowing greater scholarly access are good developments -- but did the feds really need to bring in the wrecking crew to large chunks of the museum?

What I valued about the old museum is that it successfully (if rather unintentionally) conveyed the peculiar spirit of Nixon in all of his petty provinciality, constitutional criminality, delusional grandiosity, and world-class paranoia. And all of the people who worked and volunteered there seemed to be unassuming keepers of that flame, true believers and hangers-on from some small-town Republican Leave-it-to-Beaver time-warp. The docents seemed fiercely yet ever-so-politely protective of Nixon's legacy, and I, for one, just don't encounter such folks on a regular basis and get an opportunity to interact with them. Call them what you will, but they were not phony. Now they will need to be screened and vetted by civil service protocols, and they will need to be reminded that their mission is to present a "neutral, non-partisan view of the president." What bureaucratic bunk. Do we really need a federal curator telling us that Nixon's Checkers speech was emotionally manipulative? Did anyone really leave the old museum having been converted to a false version of Watergate's history because of the laughably skewed presentation in the Watergate gallery?

If I want to read a biography about Nixon, I'll look for a book written by an esteemed and credible biographer. But if I want to read an autobiography, I know that I'm entering into potentially dubious territory. And autobiography is a different genre altogether from biography. What Naftali doesn't apparently realize, or does so only inchoately, is that a U.S. Presidential Library is a strange institution serving mixed and maybe rival constituencies, not just those who appreciate biography but also those who wish to encounter autobiography.

Please, don't let the feds take over the Roy Rogers Museum and demolish the exhibit with the stuffed Trigger all in order to present the public with a more unbiased view of the Hollywood cowboy era.