It turns out the Watergate scandal that brought down President Richard Nixon was not an unfounded smear manufactured by Democrats, after all.
We know this because the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum now tells us so. Until recently, this institution was part of the movement to recast Nixon’s presidency as peaceful, progressive, law-abiding and respectful of every American’s constitutional rights. Actually, it was pretty much the entire movement.
That changed last month when, as The New York Times put it, the library opened a door some wanted to keep closed: the door to its new Watergate Gallery. In the new gallery, visitors can wander among displays with titles such as “Dirty Tricks and Political Espionage” and “The Coverup” and listen to Nixon’s voice as it was captured by the infamous White House tapes.
The change has been brewing since the National Archives assumed control of the museum in 2007. The museum previously had been run by the Richard Nixon Foundation, a group of Nixon loyalists. Despite the shift in control, the foundation continued to fight the new Watergate gallery, at one point compiling a 150-page report of specific objections. Hardly any of the foundation’s requests were granted. The library’s director, Timothy Naftali, said that by refusing to ignore a former leader’s shortcomings, the exhibit serves as evidence of “our self-confidence as a people.”
The 20th and early 21st centuries have left an amazing and ever-improving documentary record, including presidential history. Any of us can now research, document and interpret the past in ways that not long ago were the province of professional historians, journalists and ideologues. We come up with different interpretations and conclusions, of course, but over time this diversity helps us develop a deeper and more nuanced appreciation of the people that changed our lives.
They were not saints. They were not, with few exceptions, one-dimensional sinners or flops, either. They had strengths and weaknesses, triumphs and failures, just like the rest of us.
Nixon compiled lists of enemies, spied on political opponents, subverted the IRS and the FBI to his political ends. He promised an early “peace with honor” in Vietnam, then secretly escalated the war into nearby countries before engineering an election-eve peace deal that soon fell apart, leaving the Communists in control.
But he also opened relations with Communist China, which most everyone recalls, and signed groundbreaking environmental and labor legislation — establishing the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration — which many do not. He was a conservative Republican, but conservative Republicanism in Nixon’s era differed from conservative Republicanism today in interesting ways.
Depending on our political viewpoint, many of us categorize modern presidents as absolute successes or failures. If you see the world a certain way, Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush were men of principle and purpose; if you see it another way, they were amiable idiots. Holders of the latter viewpoint tend to idolize President Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy; holders of the former do not.
Because of his role in leading the country through the Great Depression and World War II, FDR, in particular, has been canonized. The website for the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum summarizes its exhibit on “The Presidential Years” as follows: “FDR led the United States through the greatest economic depression in its history and helped guide the Allied Powers to victory in World War II.” But the Depression dragged on for a decade before ending more as a result of the war than of Roosevelt’s New Deal. And that war was very nearly lost. By attacking Pearl Harbor, the Japanese pressed Roosevelt into taking the definitive action he otherwise might have continued to avoid. While the Nazis conquered most of continental Europe, Roosevelt declined to ask Congress for a declaration of war that would have jeopardized his political fortunes.
JFK, too, is often granted a protected preserve in history, largely because of his assassination. But, while it is honorable to respect the price he paid to serve his country, it does him no honor to distort history.
His responses to the Communist takeover in Cuba were ineffective. He started another, ultimately unsuccessful, battle against Communism by making early incursions into Vietnam. While the Civil Rights movement made great progress during his administration, he was slow to offer it his full aid. The website of the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum admits this, noting that Kennedy “was reluctant to lose southern support for legislation on many fronts by pushing too hard on civil rights legislation.”
Many viewed Jimmy Carter's presidency as a failure when it ended, but it is now seen somewhat more kindly. His activities since he left office have won him a great deal of respect and affection, along with a Nobel Prize. His successor, Ronald Reagan, was seen at the time as a bumbling stooge by many who opposed him — but by the time he left office, the Iron Curtain was on the verge of falling and America's economy had been restored to global pre-eminence.
The legacies of our last two presidents are still under construction. The George W. Bush Presidential Library hasn’t even settled into its permanent location yet, let alone established a definitive interpretation of the former president’s two terms in the White House. But, in each case, it is already clear that if we get an honest history, it will be a mixed one. Bill Clinton presided, for the most part, over peace and prosperity, but a lethal terrorism grew unchecked by his weak responses. Bush launched wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which many people opposed and still oppose. But he left Iraq better than he found it, and he inspired Muammar Gadhafi to give up his nuclear weapons program. The significance of that accomplishment can hardly be overstated at the moment.
The occupants of the White House have not always had much in common, but they have all been human beings. Some have been better, some worse, but none of them saints or monsters. Human beings are complicated and imperfect. Any good historical presentation should give us the chaff together with the wheat, and let us sort them out.