Ever since the Richard M. Nixon Library and Birthplace opened a decade ago, journalists have ridiculed it the same way they have its honoree. Visiting it, I see why.
You can tour the museum and practically forget that Nixon, alone among American presidents, resigned in disgrace. Two large rooms tout Nixon's statesmanship, showcasing gifts from world leaders: a brocaded silk fabric from Vietnam's Thieu, a pre-Colombian stone carving from Nicaragua's Somoza, a gold-hilted scimitar from Saudi Arabia's King Fahd, plus all kinds of goodies from Mao. There's another room full of gowns worn by Pat, Julie, and Tricia. Watergate, meanwhile, gets a third of one wall. The harshest verdict rendered is that Nixon made some "inexcusable misjudgments."
As a result, the whole place has been written off. That's too bad, because downstairs, out of public view, is an indispensable collection of historical documents. If the museum's curators wear their politics on their sleeves--and their hats and lapel pins and shirts and trousers--the archivists couldn't be more professional: helpful, pleasant, responsible, knowledgeable. Yet few scholars have ever bothered to visit the place.
This week I'm the only one here. The single room where scholars work is distractingly silent. The plush sea-green wall-to-wall carpeting muffles even the sound of footsteps. I have my pick of a half-dozen identical wooden desks. I choose one and set up my laptop. In front of me, on a raised platform, sits Beverly Lindy, the library's assistant archivist, working away. Behind me, in a glass-walled office, works Susan Naulty, the chief archivist. Looking up, I notice an enormous oil portrait of RN himself, watching over me. I wonder if this is how working in the Nixon White House felt.
My book is about how different groups of Americans have, over time, regarded Nixon: liberal Nixon-haters in the '50s, radical conspiracy theorists in the '60s, psychoanalytic historians in the '70s, and so on. In my first chapter, which I'm now researching, I'm looking at the Southern California conservatives who supported Nixon in his earliest campaigns. I spend today thumbing through the letters the Republican National Committee received after the "Checkers" speech--the 1952 televised address that an embattled Nixon delivered to save his place as Dwight Eisenhower's vice president. Any hope of conducting a comprehensive survey is dashed when Beverly Lindy informs me there are between 2 million and 3 million such letters.
What makes the job a bit easier, I notice as I sift through the letters, is that all of them are alike in one important respect. Every last one supports Nixon unequivocally. Every last one. I peruse another folder. All pro-Nixon. Another folder. All pro-Nixon. After several more folders, I ask Beverly if there are any anti-Nixon letters. So far, she says, she has found one.