Nixon Lovers Tried to Get Yorba Linda Library Chief Fired Before Watergate Exhibit Went Up

Scholars might point to the vast video collection of interviews with Richard Nixon White House officials as the crowning glory of Timothy Naftali's five-year reign as executive director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda.

For the rest of us, Naftali will be remembered for rehabilitating what had been a dreadful Watergate exhibit, succeeding so thoroughly that Nixon loyalists tried to get him canned before the display's March 31, 2011, opening.

That historical tidbit is contained in a piece Maarja Krusten, a former National Archives Nixon tapes specialist, recently contributed to History News Network.

Given Naftali's graceful exit from Yorba Linda, it's up to colleagues like Krusten to fill in the blanks about the pressures the noted George H.W. Bush historian faced trying to bring scholarly balance to the place--as well as just hipping it up in general.

If those sound like the kind of moves that would have Dick lovers seeing red, your hearing does not need to be checked.

The move to oust Naftali over the Watergate exhibit was not the only attempt to force him out, according to Krusten. She points to some Nixon White House officials reportedly having approached Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) to place a hold on the 2009 Senate confirmation of David S. Ferriero as archivist of the United States pending the delivery of Naftali's head on a platter.

An effort was mounted "by officials below the agency head level at the National Archives" to get Naftali to resign in June 2010, before his long-to-complete exhibit went up, Krusten reports.

Before Ferriero reorganized the National Archives early in 2011, Naftali reported to Sharon Fawcett, the assistant director of Presidential Libraries and 40-year veteran of federal service. She received a lengthy list of objections to Naftali's Watergate exhibit from the private Nixon Foundation in August 2010, according to Krusten.

(Actually, Fawcett received gripes from the foundation about Naftali from after his appointment in 2007 through her retirement in 2011, the historian notes.)

Among the foundation's beefs about the Watergate exhibit: it included historically accurate references to Fred Malek's 1971 "Jew counting" at the Bureau of Labor Statistics at Nixon's behest.

You didn't see George McGovern and Gore Vidal at the Nixon Library before Naftali arrived.
You didn't see George McGovern and Gore Vidal at the Nixon Library before Naftali arrived.
Photo by Christopher Victorio/OC Weekly

For including such details, foundation associate Bob Bostock asked if there wasn't an Alger Hiss library Naftali could head instead of a Nixon Presidential Library.

Naftali himself publicly revealed an offer he refused from Fawcett and Reagan Library director Duke Blackwood in June 2010: his resignation in exchange for his Watergate exhibit.

The director stood by his work, as did Ferriero, who made the final decision on the exhibit going up as Naftali had prepared it.

Krusten ends her piece not by taking pot shots at the Nixon loyalists--her entire account is pretty matter-of-fact and snark-free--but she does take a swipe at others in her profession.

"Historians need to step up their game," she writes. "They need to embrace continual learning and educate themselves about the National Archives and what it faces in Washington. As it is, there is what Naftali calls an intensity gap. The Nixon side showed intense interest in the Watergate exhibit and used various means in an unsuccessful effort to limit it.

"This time around, knowledgeable Washington insiders such as I had Tim's back. Who will fight for the next Tim Naftali, if complacency among historians on presidential libraries issues continues?"

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