Minimize This

Following a campaign that seemed like a replay of 1972—in which John Kerry getting shot in Vietnam was considered infinitely more puss than the president's service in the Texas Air National Guard—it's natural that the opening of the William J. Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock would kick off the Grand Reopening of Wounds from a time before most of us hit puberty. So let's admit that history is indeed long—it stretches back, we're told, into something called “prehistory”—and that conservative journalists often seem to bet that we're too fucking benumbed by Desperate Housewives to check their facts on really old but not prehistoric history.

In this case, we're talking about Washington Times staffer Audrey Hudson's Nov. 18 piece “Nixon Library Doesn't Minimize Watergate.”

The Clinton Center, she complains, “includes small alcoves dedicated to numerous themes and scandals, including Mr. Clinton's Whitewater hearings and impeachment trial.” Key word: “small.”

By contrast, Hudson avers, the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda is all about an honest recap of Watergate. Key figures in the scandal “are identified in photographs,” she reports, and a document in the exhibit notes that “Nixon himself said he made inexcusable misjudgments during Watergate. But what is equally clear is that his political opponents ruthlessly exploited those misjudgments as a way to further their purely political goals.”

Now, I don't know about you, but when you weigh “inexcusable misjudgment” against “ruthless” exploitation in the pursuit of “purely political goals,” I almost feel like excusing Mr. Nixon.

Hudson points out that some of Nixon's “tapes are played for visitors, including the 'smoking gun' conversation on June 23, 1972, when the president is first told of White House Counsel John Dean's idea to pressure the FBI to abandon the investigation of the Democratic National Committee break-in at the Watergate building. 'Call the FBI and say that we wish, for the country, don't go any further into this case, period,' Mr. Nixon told his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman. Another exhibit says Mr. Nixon stopped the plan two weeks later, and admits he was connected to the cover-up, but not the crime that led to his resignation and near-impeachment.”

I've been to the Nixon Birthplace many times, and I can tell you this: “minimize” isn't nearly grand enough a word to describe all the minimization in just those few sentences. But let me just point out that the Nixon Library's smoking-gun tape doesn't say what Hudson says it says. In fact, as UC Irvine history professor Jon Wiener pointed out in “Inside the Nixon Liebrary,” a 1990 Nation magazine article, a library narrator helps contextualize the tape by asserting that whatever you think Nixon may have said, what he “really said was, 'the best thing to do is let the investigation proceed unhindered.' Why that would bring Barry Goldwater and the Senate Republican leadership to advise Nixon to resign,” Wiener observed, “is not explained.”

I called Hudson at her Washington, D.C., office and asked if she'd ever visited the Nixon Library—or Yorba Linda, Orange County, or California. She said she'd never been to the library but defended her article by revealing that she had actually looked at floor plans of both libraries—Nixon's and Clinton's—and, on that basis, felt confident that Nixon's gave Watergate the broader stage.

I imagine her on the floor of the Washington Times news room, poring over blueprints.

Then she asked, “Who did you say you are?”

I repeated my name and told her—again—I was writing a story for OC Weekly. “We're a sister paper of the Village Voice,” I said because anyone who believes the Nixon Library N Birthplace doesn't minimize Watergate probably doesn't know the Weekly.

That's when she told me her paper's policy prohibited her from speaking to reporters and that nothing she'd said was for the record. I tried pointing out that I had identified myself and that, whatever, many conservatives don't consider the Weekly a newspaper, so where's the problem? She referred me to her editor. At press time, that editor had still not returned my several calls.

It's worth noting that among all libraries for modern presidents, only Nixon's remains outside the control of the National Archives, the government agency committed to full public access to presidential records. It's worth noting that Hudson's paper, the Washington Times, is backed by high-rolling religious whack Reverend Sun Yung Moon, a man whose financial empire finances many of the Republican party's most extreme politicians. And it's worth noting that Watergate happened a long time ago, but try as we might, we can't forget its gruesome details.

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