Tim Naftali, the director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, is stepping down on November 19 after over four years at the helm. He plans to devote himself full-time to writing.
“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,” he said.
The Nixon Library was established by the Nixon family in 1990, without the benefit of Nixon’s presidential documents, recordings, and other records held by the National Archives and Records Administration. NARA refused to turn their documents over to the private Nixon Foundation for fear that they would be misused, and indeed the private library developed a reputation for zealously safeguarding the president’s legacy to the point of distortion. After considerable legal wrangling that spanned the course of a decade and a half, the library fell under NARA’s authority in 2007, when Naftali, already director of the governmental Nixon Presidential Materials Project since 2006, was put in charge of the library in Yorba Linda, California.
Naftali faced no small task in reforming the library. He himself described the place in 2007 as “a private library that saw itself as a Republican institution. Its programming reflected that.” Indeed, historians had been intensely critical of the library and museum for years. (“Where else,” wrote David Marley, “can you see John Dean get blamed for Nixon’s Watergate crimes? What other presidential library would invite Oliver North to speak and sell his books?”) The last flare-up was in 2005, one year after Congress voted to incorporate the library into the National Archives, when a conference on Nixon and the Vietnam War which was to be held at the library was cancelled at the last minute at the prompting of the Nixon Foundation. This sent historians to the barricades—many called for NARA to abandon its plans to move its Nixon material to the library.
That was then. As David Marley noted back in 2005, the incorporation of the Nixon Library into NARA was one of the biggest blows the Nixon Foundation and its supporters could suffer. In 2009, no less a Nixon opponent than John Dean spoke at the library, a far cry from the days when the first director, Hugh Hewitt, made it known that Bob Woodward would not be welcome on the premises. The museum has also opened a steady stream of declassified material since its federalization—late last year 265 hours of White House tapes, 140,000 pages of documents and 75 hours of oral histories were released online and at the library’s facilities. Earlier this year, the Pentagon Papers, the catalyst for the “dirty tricks” campaign against Daniel Ellsberg, were officially released at the library.
But the greatest change at the library, and certainly the one that has attracted the most attention, has been the new Watergate exhibit. Naftali went after the old, Foundation-approved Watergate exhibit almost immediately after he became director, “with sledgehammers swinging,” as Bob Bostock, who authored the original exhibit which largely absolved Nixon of responsibility and even suggested a Democratic conspiracy, noted with irritation. After being closed down for several years, the exhibit finally re-opened last April to great acclaim, and with a decidedly different agenda. “I’m a professional historian, an empiricist,” Naftali said before he became director. “I see … presidential libraries … as a place of learning and debate and discussion.” The Watergate exhibit, judging by its reception by historians and the media, appears to have reached that goal, probably uniquely amongst presidential libraries. “[The] tradition of [ignoring or understating a presidency’s dark chapters] was exploded … at the Watergate Gallery,” raved the New York Times. “The exhibit offers a searing and often unforgiving account of one of the most painful chapters of the nation’s history.” Jon Wiener wrote in the Los Angeles Times that the unflinching gimlet eye of the new exhibit meant that “our long national nightmare really is over—at last.”
With the success of the Watergate exhibit, Naftali told the National Archives a few months that he’d be leaving. “I told [Archivist of the United States David Ferriero] that I’d be moving on. He of course hated to lose me, but I needed to go.… While I believe public service is important, if you’re going to be a catalyst, you’ve got to play your part then get out of the reaction.”
Mr. Naftali plans to devote most of his energies to a history of John F. Kennedy’s foreign policy, with the goal of hitting the bookshelves by 2013.