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Nixon library offers candid new take on Watergate

YORBA LINDA, Calif. — For years, Richard Nixon’s presidential library was accused of committing another Watergate cover-up. But now, archivists say, the stonewalling is over.

The library opened an expanded new exhibit Thursday that scholars say provides a more balanced and accurate account of the scandal that brought down a president.

“The public deserves nonpartisan, objective presidential libraries,” said library director Tim Naftali, who alluded to the original display as “inaccurate and whitewashed.” Among other things, the old exhibit portrayed Nixon’s epic downfall as a “coup” by his enemies and suggested the press behaved unethically in pursuing him.

The $500,000 makeover was undertaken by the National Archives after it took control of the library in 2007 from the private organization of Nixon loyalists that had overseen the place since its opening in 1990.

The new display features sections called “Abuse of Power,” ”The Cover-Up” and “Dirty Tricks,” complemented by taped interviews and text. In one interview, Nixon aide Alexander Haig, who died last year, says the president once asked him to burn White House tapes. “I said no,” Haig recalls.

Some material has never before been shown publicly, and it includes interviews with such figures as Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy and Nixon aide Charles Colson, who went to prison for crimes that came to light as the scandal unfolded.

The scandal began with a burglary at Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel complex in Washington, and eventually exposed widespread wrongdoing in the Nixon White House, including abuse of government agencies for political purposes. Nixon resigned on Aug. 8, 1974.

Dismantled several years ago, the library’s original Watergate exhibit was the largest of any at the site at the time, consisting of documents, text and photographs along a long, darkened hallway. But academics ridiculed it.

When the site opened, Nixon biographer Stephen E. Ambrose said the commentary on one heavily edited Watergate tape “would almost convince a listener that Nixon never ordered a cover-up or a payment of hush money.”

“The presentation makes the best possible case for Nixon, mainly in Nixon’s own words, and is entirely self-serving,” Ambrose wrote in a Los Angeles Times column.

One section of the old exhibit, titled “The drum beat swells,” said: “Allegations took on the weight of fact in the minds of those who were determined to engineer a coup of their own.” The section went on to say that Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who played a major role in exposing the scandal, may have broken the law and violated ethics standards in their zeal to uncover wrongdoing.

(Woodward and former Post executive editor Benjamin Bradlee are scheduled to make their first visit to the library in April for a conversation about Watergate. Bernstein visited in 2007.)

The private Richard Nixon Foundation, which used to run the site, has argued that the exhibit was “President Nixon’s perspective” and that no one had found any factual errors in its text or exhibits.

The foundation, which now serves in an advisory role, filed extensive objections to the new exhibit with the National Archives last year, saying it lacked context to explain Nixon’s decision-making.

Nixon White House aide Bruce Herschensohn said Nixon’s perspective should have remained, arguing that presidential libraries should be a shrine.

“I can only come to the conclusion it will probably be a hit piece,” he said the night before the new display opened. “This is the Nixon library. This is his place. He’s buried there … and so is Mrs. Nixon.”

At Bill Clinton’s presidential library, which opened in Little Rock, Ark., in 2004, an alcove exhibit along the timeline of Clinton’s career addresses his impeachment and acquittal over the Monica Lewinsky affair.

Steve Frank, who worked on Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign in California, looks fondly on Nixon’s presidency but welcomed a new, fuller treatment of Watergate at the library.

“I thought it was improper for them not to provide the whole substance of Watergate” in the original exhibit, said Frank, a conservative activist. “When you try to hide the facts, it makes it look worse than it is.”