Timothy Naftali, the George H.W. Bush biographer and respected historian the National Archives chose to run the Richard Nixon Library and Museum in Yorba Linda after the disgraced 37th president's loyalists from a private foundation first built and operated the sprawling facility, is leaving.
Naftali, who will be remembered for bringing what Stephen Colbert calls "truthiness" to the Nixon Library, confirms his departure after four year at the helm in a report by George Mason University's History News Network (HNN).
"I'll leave it up to other people to gauge how successful I've been here, but I believe I achieved the objects I set out to achieve back in 2006, and it's time for me to move on," Naftali told David A. Walsh, the HNN editor.
Attempts by the Weekly to reach Naftali have so far been unsuccessful. He reportedly will leave Nov. 19 to devote his energies full-time to writing. Besides George H. W. Bush (2007), which was part of The American Presidents series edited by the late Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and Sean Wilentz, Naftali wrote Blind Spot: The Secret History of American Counterterrorism and two books with Aleksander Fursenko: "One Hell of A Gamble": Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy, 1958-1964 and Khrushchev's Cold War: The Inside Story of an American Adversary, which received the Duke of Westminster's Medal for Military Literature in June 2007. Naftali's next project is a history of John F. Kennedy's foreign policy, which he hopes will hit bookshelves by 2013.
Naftali has also written articles published by Slate.com, The New York Times, the Washington Post, Foreign Affairs, and he's taught history at several universities, including the University of Virginia, where he also served as director of the Presidential Recordings Program at the Miller Center of Public Affairs. There he oversaw a team of researchers who transcribed and annotated meetings and telephone conversations secretly recorded by Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard M. Nixon.
After his appointment in 2007 by then-Archivist of the United States Allen Weinstein, Naftali brought that expertise when it came to videos and recordings to the Nixon Library, where he once led me on a tour that included a stop at a video bay where an editor was working on hundreds of hours of on-camera interviews Naftali conducted with Nixon administration officials and Washington, D.C., insiders during the 37th presidency.
For moves like that, a truly modern and comprehensive underground archives room, the careful treatment of the controversial tapes Nixon secretly recorded in the White House, the badly needed correction of the museum's Watergate wing and appearances at the sacred Yorba Linda grounds by the likes of John Dean, George McGovern, Gore Vidal, Bob Woodward and the Pentagon Papers, Naftali has been applauded by fellow historians and buffs who never swallowed the Dick Nixon Kool-Aid.
But that's also made Naftali a target of Nixon lovers, including members of the foundation board. Frustrated over facts about Nixon reaching the public from the library and museum that bear his name, some critics first tried to exert pressure on the George W. Bush administration to get Naftali fired then, when that didn't happen, stories started leaking about Naftali's personal life. (He's proudly gay.)
The library was established in 1990, but without Nixon's presidential documents, recordings and other records that the National Archives withheld out of fears they would be misused, the facility became a cheerleader for the only U.S. president who resigned--or, as Naftali himself put it, "a private library that saw itself as a Republican institution. Its programming reflected that."
The settlement with the foundation and Nixon family that brought all those records to the museum, under the watchful eyes of the National Archives, essentially gutted the Nixon loyalists' influence over the facility, although the foundation still runs the gift shops, has volunteer docents around the grounds and brings GOP hacks to the replica of the White House East Room. Dick Cheney, Bill O'Reilly and Newt Gingrich are among the most-recent speakers the foundation has hosted.
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Among Naftali's biggest boosters is Jon Wiener, the UC Irvine history professor, KPFK radio host and The Nation contributor who led field trips to the library even before the National Archives swooped in. Wiener, who specializes in the post-Civil War South and the Sixties, and has written and been interviewed extensively about the U.S. government's secret war on John Lennon, is among the historians who have sung the praises of the archives room and Watergate wing.
"Historians often complain that presidential libraries tend to present rosy pictures of former presidents, ignoring anything controversial," Wiener wrote in the Los Angeles Times in April. "The Nixon Library's original Watergate exhibit was one of the worst offenders."
Taking a cue from Nixon's successor Gerald Ford, Wiener concludes, "It took a long time, but at the new Watergate exhibit at the Nixon Library, our long national nightmare really is over."