Tricky Dicks

Academics ask Congress to deny Nixon Library presidential documents after conference cancellation

PoorNixonLibrary.Upandrunningfor15 years as a collection of all things political, pallid and paranoid, it's just now about to come into possession of Richard Nixon's presidential papers. The federal government seized those papers in 1974 when Nixon left the Oval Office in disgrace. Without the scholarly weight of those papers, university professors have treated the Nixon Library as little more than an embroidery museum/gift shop and a fab place for a wedding reception. (Call Shannon at 714-993-5075.)

But now, as Library representatives figure out how to accommodate the more than 46 million pages, 30,000 gifts and thousands of hours of tapes currently stored in a National Archives building in Maryland, some Nixon scholars are petitioning Congress to deny the Yorba Linda facility all of its Nixonia.

On March 10, 16 history professors specializing in the Nixon era asked Congress to hold the documents and about $7 million in federal funds that would help transport and house them. The plea came after Nixon Library executive director John Taylor pulled his institute's support for "Richard Nixon as Commander-in-Chief: The History of Nixon and Vietnam," an April 28-29 conference at the Nixon Library and Whittier College, Nixon's alma mater.

"The unprofessional behavior of the Nixon Library leadership calls into question that institution's fitness to join the Presidential Library system," the scholars wrote. "The Nixon Library evidently feels free to toss aside, at its own convenience, its commitments to Whittier College and to the conference participants."

In a March 4 e-mail to proposed panelists, Taylor claimed that slow ticket sales—only seven people out of a "substantial" number of invitees had confirmed their attendance by paying the $180 conference fee—was the reason for the cancellation. But no academic associated with the event believed him. Whittier College history professor Laura McEnaney, the main conference organizer, wrote to the expected panelists that she was "surprised, frustrated and angry about this development."

McEnaney was cordial; other panelists were not. Larry Berman, director of the University of California Washington Center and author of NoPeace,NoHonor:Nixon,KissingerandBetrayalinVietnam,called Taylor's decision "unprofessional and reflect[ing] a total lack of understanding for the academic enterprise. Thirty years after the war in Vietnam ended, it seems that another type of war still wages within the inner sanctums of the Nixon Library."

In a letter to Taylor, Berman alleged that Taylor "suckered" him and other panelists into thinking the Nixon Library would finally allow dissenters to get at Nixon on his home court. "I would have expected or hoped that transfer of the Nixon White House papers would bring with it an understanding of the responsibility the Library has to true scholarly inquiry and dialogue," he wrote. "I was wrong, again."

Just as scathing was Stanley Kutler, a respected Nixon scholar best known for transcribing some of the more salacious segments of the infamous Nixon tapes. In a March 7 essay for the History News Network (hnn.us), Kutler opined that the proposed conference "was a charade and sham once Taylor determined that he could not limit participation to his usual roster of uncritical Nixon acolytes and believers, and still call it a 'historical conference.' Alas! in the immortal words of Patrick Henry, we should have 'smelt a rat.'"

But the best retort to Taylor came from Thomas Blanton, director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University and one of the country's foremost experts on presidential recordings. In a sarcastic March 5 e-mail to Taylor, Blanton reminisced about a "day at your Yorba Linda facility a few years ago, after which I emerged from my immersion in your selection of the Watergate tapes understanding for really the first time ever, that John Dean had actually masterminded the Watergate break-in and all the other dirty tricks and had stuck his victimized chief executive with the blame." He expressed disappointment that Taylor is even bothering with scholarly acceptance—"surely," Blanton wrote, "President Nixon would have appreciated the outlier status that you have cultivated"—and accused Taylor of leading academics on to pretend that their likes "were actually welcome in Yorba Linda."

"Indeed," Blanton concluded, "your cancellation convinces me to agree with you that it would be wrong for Yorba Linda to host real scholarly conferences. Bar mitzvahs are far more lucrative."

(Call Shannon at 714-993-5075.)


GARELLANO@OCWEEKLY.COM

 
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