Will There Be a Last Nixon Cover-Up?

Richard Nixon’s White House records soon will be transferred from the National Archives to a library associated with the Nixon Foundation. John Taylor, a Nixon Foundation official, is negotiating the transfer of the records. As a former archivist with the Archives’ Nixon records staff, I am alarmed by this news.

As their administrations come to a close, presidents establish foundations to raise money for libraries to house their records. The National Archives runs the libraries but the foundations exert varying degrees of influence. Foundations sometimes censor museum exhibits, suppress topics at scholarly conferences or seek to halt release of historical documents. In Nixon’s case, years of campaign-style attacks on archivists have cast a shadow over his foundation.

A law passed in 1974 while the special prosecutor investigated Watergate governs public access to Nixon’s records. A later law covers successor presidents’ records. Nixon’s lawyers argued against a statute that singled out his records, but they lost in court. The law handed the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) a clear mandate to screen Nixon’s records for public release.

When NARA took custody of Nixon’s records in 1977, it said it needed archivists of “special integrity” to screen the tapes and files. Archivists are trained historians. They serve as honest brokers, roles presidential associates cannot fill. As an attorney once said of presidential records, “A player with significant stakes in the process cannot also be referee.”

The law calls on NARA to return to Nixon (now his estate) “personal” material but to open to the public disclosable information “of general historical significance.” Millions of documents and hundreds of hours of tapes await release. Nixon’s estate has the right to file objections to planned disclosures, but scholars have no mechanism to appeal improper withholding.

The law directs the Archives to reveal “the full truth” about Watergate abuses. Nixon sought to limit tape disclosures to the 63 hours subpoenaed by the special prosecutor in 1973. But archivists identified new information about Watergate during the 1980s. Taylor, who served as Nixon’s chief of staff in the post-White House years, described his anger when “we were told that the Hardy Boys at NARA had kept a little list — 201 additional fun-filled hours of their own greatest hits.” NARA didn’t open those tapes until 1996, two years after Nixon died. Taylor sneered, “The archivists have done their worst.”

Taylor holds strong views about Nixon. He believes that “understanding the President’s perspective on Watergate requires one to accept his moral distinction between the Watergate break-in and the activities of the Plumbers.” (The White House formed the “plumbers” to plug information leaks. Some members of the unit later were convicted of criminal acts.)

I and other archivists finished screening all the Nixon tapes in 1987. We received praise from the Archives’ managers for our work. But when Nixon’s lawyers attacked us during the first Bush administration, NARA’s top officials left us twisting in the wind. They sat silent when Nixon’s attorneys criticized our reviews as too oriented toward public disclosure. Taylor implied I was a liberal — or at least not a “Nixon Republican.” In fact, my work was so nonpartisan that he could not be aware that I had voted for Nixon.

None of this bodes well for the future. How a library handles public access depends not on whether a president is dead or still alive, but on the attitudes of the interested parties. Archivists find it easy to work with Gerald R. Ford, a living former president. By contrast, many scholars criticize the John F. Kennedy library for censoring material that might detract from JFK’s image.

Instead of independent archivists, a board named by the Kennedy family decides whether to open sensitive records. Nixon’s lawyers often have pointed to the Kennedy model. Hearing records show that in 1986 they discussed how the Kennedy library supposedly was opening “only the most favorable materials.”

Nixon’s advocates pressured the Archives so strongly during the first Bush administration that the agency split into warring camps. The effort to reconcile statutory intent with practices at some presidential libraries led to bloody internal disputes.

Many employees felt under siege. A few of the archivists charged with safeguarding records about presidential abuses of power wondered in 1992 if their own telephones were monitored. Trudy Peterson, a former president of the Society of American Archivists, took charge of NARA in 1993. She sought to ensure proper handling of Nixon’s records. But an unidentified opponent within the Archives undermined her by leaking to Nixon’s lawyer a sensitive internal memorandum written by Peterson about the White House tapes.

Nixon’s advocates worked aggressively to keep most of his records locked up during his lifetime. They hurled charges and used intimidation. But they paid a heavy price. They lost the trust of many historians, inside and outside the National Archives.

Maarja Krusten, a historian and former archivist on the National Archives' Nixon tapes and documents processing staff, is a writer for the History News Service.

February, 2004