His turn as director of the Nixon Library has given him
credibility, but is it warranted?
By Max Holland
Since late April, Reuters, the Orange County Register, The Nation, Los Angeles Times, and The New Yorker have published articles lamenting the lack of a director at the Richard M. Nixon Library (RMNL) in Yorba Linda, California.
All the articles (excepting Jeffrey Frank’s slightly more nuanced New Yorker piece) have the same narrative, almost as if they were part of an orchestrated campaign. The uncommon delay in finding a new permanent director (going on three years) is the fault of Nixon partisans, so the story goes, who are holding out for a congenial person to rehabilitate the only president to resign in disgrace. And the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is being stymied in its admirable effort to present Nixon in an objective, unvarnished light.
As proof, the articles reprise the conventional, heroic narrative about the tenure of Tim Naftali, who headed the library from 2007 to 2011. Naftali “presided over the installation of a new, historically accurate Watergate exhibit,” The Nation article said, which Nixon loyalists “vehemently objected to,” according to Reuters. That left Naftali “fiercely at odds with the . . . [Nixon] family and close supporters of the 37th president,” the Orange County Register reported. The Register also quoted Naftali to level the allegation that Nixon loyalists are consciously stalling so they can allegedly “write the text” for a pending $15 million renovation of the museum, which is the public face of the library, since most visitors to Yorba Linda do not use the archives. The Los Angeles Times article dispensed with a reporter and made these points in an article written by Naftali himself.
As the late Alexander Cockburn liked to observe, “The First Law of Journalism is to confirm existing prejudice, rather than contradict it.”
There are serious issues up for debate here, not the least of which is whether presidential libraries should be shrines, places that debunk their namesakes, or something in-between. There is also the question of whether Nixon deserves special handling. Before considering such issues though, it might be well to reconsider Naftali’s tenure. As the cliché goes, there are two sides to every story—even one involving Richard Milhous Nixon.
In a widely-noted remark at Richard Nixon’s funeral service in April 1994, then-President Bill Clinton said, “may the day of judging President Nixon on anything less than his entire life and career come to a close.” Naftali was supposed to hasten and facilitate that day as the first NARA-appointed director. Yet the portrait of Naftali that emerges after taking a closer look at his directorship is not as flattering as the above clippings. The former RMNL director is skilled at public relations, knows how to use the press to advance a case, and has a talent for self-promotion. But through acts of commission and omission, he failed to enrich and preserve the historical record. In one particularly egregious instance, he even helped falsify that record.