Nixon's backers make last stand over Watergate

Take a healthy dose of paranoia. Toss in dark allegations of a left-wing smear campaign. Finish with a furious dispute over whether to give the American public access to some potentially revelatory tape recordings, and you've got a simmering political controversy that could only really involve one man: the former US president Richard Nixon.

Three and a half decades after Nixon was removed from office, and 16 years after his death, friends and admirers of the 37th occupant of the White House are attempting to prevent his Presidential Library from educating visitors in gory details of a certain little affair called Watergate.

For years, the museum, which stands on the site of "tricky Dicky's" birthplace and former childhood home in Orange County, California, has treated the most notorious scandal in modern history as a sort of minor mishap, relegating the only exhibit about it to a dusty corridor connecting rooms full of such memorabilia as Mrs Nixon's cocktail dresses with the gift shop.

But in 2007, the Nixon Foundation – an organisation of the president's former cronies and admirers which had run the library since it opened in 1990 – agreed to hand control of it to the US National Archive, which runs all of America's other presidential libraries. And the new management immediately set about attempting to properly chronicle the series of events that sparked Nixon's downfall.

Timothy Naftali, the library's incoming curator, interviewed 150 of the key players in the scandal, making a film which he hoped to display on vast plasma screens in a new gallery. Next to them, on a 30ft wall, would hang documents, memorabilia, and tapes of phone conversations revealing Nixon's links to the burglary at the Watergate complex in Washington in 1972.

The swanky new exhibit would also include a scale model showing where the president placed bugs and surveillance devices at the White House and Camp David during his subsequent attempt to cover up the abuse of power. It was due to open on 1 July, in time for celebrations marking the 20th anniversary of the library's opening.

But as of yesterday, it had yet to open. Instead, the space at the library where 95,000 visitors are supposed to come each year to learn about a turbulent chapter in American history stands empty and unloved. "Please excuse our dust," reads a small sign. "We are currently building a new Watergate gallery."

The reason for the delay, it turns out, lies squarely in the hands of The Nixon Foundation. Its members believe the proposed exhibit will provide a distorted and unnecessarily condemnatory portrayal of their political hero, and has therefore blocked its installation.

Under the terms by which the foundation handed over the library three years ago, it has an "advisory role" which forces the National Archive to properly consider any objections it might have regarding both the management of the attraction, and any proposed changes to its contents.

A letter detailing the organisation's concerns about what it believes is the one-sided nature of the new Watergate exhibit was therefore sent last month to the Archive. The new gallery cannot open until that letter is responded to. And, to the dismay of Mr Naftali, it runs to no less than 132 pages of prose.

"It is the last fight over Watergate," he told reporters about the dispute this week, adding that he was unwilling to let the Nixon Library (which under National Archive rules must provide an unbiased presentation of history) advance conservative propaganda. "I am not a Nixon loyalist. I am not even a Republican," he said. "I am gay. I am from Canada."

That sort of talk only inflames the Nixon Foundation. Although they refuse to make their 132-page letter public, or to provide a detailed account of everything they dislike about the proposed Watergate exhibit, Bob Bostock, a former Nixon aide who drafted the lengthy objection, said the library should instead celebrate the president's achievements: ending the war in Vietnam, and building diplomatic relations with China.

"Taping and wiretapping go back as far as FDR," he told The New York Times. "It lacks the context it needs: that Nixon was not the first president to do some of these things and that some of these things had been going on with many of his predecessors, in some cases, much more than he did."

His complaint has bemused many historians, who point out that Nixon was not forced to quit because of taping and wiretapping (which merely provided evidence of wider abuses of power). Among their number is Jon Wiener, a professor of history at the University of California in Irvine, who brings students on an annual trip to the library, which sits on a picturesque site where Nixon's father, a failed citrus grower, attempted to start a family farm.

"I understand the foundation's general outlook, which is that all other presidential libraries defend the actions of presidents," he told The Independent. "They say, 'Why should we be any different?' But with Watergate there is a reason why they should: Nixon was the only president to have resigned rather than face impeachment, and the National Archive has an obligation to historians, and to visitors, and to school parties and students who come here, to explain why that happened."

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