Archiving Nixon

Illustration by Bob AulGregory G. Cummings began his job as director of archives programs at the Richard Nixon Library this week. It says so on the Nixon Library press release that quotes Nixon Foundation chairman Donald L. Bendetti saying he's delighted to have Cummings on staff in no small part because it may help bring the Nixon Library closer to, if not make it an actual part of, the National Archives and Records Administrations (NARA).

The library of every president, from Herbert Hoover to George Bush, is part of NARA's presidential-library system. (President Bill Clinton's library has yet to open, but NARA is already advertising for the position of library director—$111,997 to $142,500, if you're interested.) The only gap in that span is President Nixon's library. So, while the other presidents' papers are housed in their respective libraries, President Nixon's remain at NARA's Office of Presidential Libraries in College Park, Maryland.

We wanted to talk to Cummings about his new job and about possibly playing Sinatra to the Nixon Library and NARA's Martin and Lewis. We left messages, but they weren't returned. We can't be sure, and we're only guessing, but we're pretty sure it's because he probably told the people at the Nixon Library we called for an interview, and the people at the library told him that, in the past, this paper has called the Nixon Library “a morgue,” Richard Nixon a “lying, conniving, manipulating, scheming, malcontent,” and library director John Taylor an “apologist/revisionist” while including him on a list of modern evils that included PowerPoint presentations and Jared, the fat dude who eats at Subway. So you can see how someone at the library could be a little gun-shy. Fair enough. No hard feelings, Mr. Cummings. Good archiving to you, sir. (We also left messages for Bendetti: bupkis.)

Still, we were interested in why this bibliographic rift exists, so we called College Park, Maryland, and spoke to Sharon Fawcett, NARA's deputy assistant archivist for presidential libraries. It was Fawcett's understanding that the Nixon Library is outside of NARA because when Mr. Nixon left office—rather hurriedly and under less than ideal circumstances—the government seized his papers and, most important, tapes. Congress then passed the Presidential Materials and Recording Preservation Act of 1974, giving custody of that material to NARA.

Though Fawcett was familiar with Cummings—he was formerly the archivist at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley—and says the library and NARA “have worked hard to have a good relationship,” it was her opinion that the only way the Nixon Library could gain custody of the Nixon papers and tapes was through another act of Congress.

We asked Fawcett if she's one of the people who listens to the Nixon tapes before they're released to the public, invariably gaining public notoriety when Nixon is heard slandering this race or that one or going nuclear about going nuclear.

“Yes, I do,” she said cheerily. “Although they can be difficult to understand. The recording quality is poor. Technology back then, of course, wasn't what it is now. There was only one microphone, so you hear whoever happens to be near it and can't always hear the people who are farthest away. Plus, people talk the way they normally talk, which doesn't always make sense. You know, the way people talk. Plus, the microphone picks up all the background noises of the cars and planes and sirens and all kinds of stuff.”

Is it spooky to hear the disembodied voices of history speaking to you from the past?

“Very spooky,” she said. “It's like that feeling you get when you're watching an old movie and you suddenly realize everyone you're watching is dead.”

Still, it must be thrilling to be one of the first people to hear jaw-dropping moments of history.

“Yes, every now and then, your jaw does drop,” she said. “But I'm sympathetic [to President Nixon]. We all say things in private conversations that we don't plan on being made available to the public, let alone played on the radio or TV. And, of course, not all of the conversations are momentous.”

Indeed, just to get to one great exchange—“You know, it's a funny thing, every one of the bastards that are out for legalizing marijuana is Jewish. What the Christ is the matter with the Jews, Bob? What is the matter with them? I suppose it is because most of them are psychiatrists”—one must slog through hours of less interesting conversations.

“The tape recorder was voice-activated, so if anyone spoke in the room, it started recording,” said Fawcett. “So you end up listening to a lot of conversations between maids.” Not to mention plumbers.

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