Nixon's papers transferred to library

Thursday, February 3, 2005

YORBA LINDA, Calif. -- On Saturday afternoons, brides and grooms exchange vows on the lawn just yards from the graves of former President Nixon and his wife, Pat.

It is the kind of commercialism that has helped pay the bills at the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace, the only presidential library without federal funding. But such small-time fund-raising may no longer be needed.

Three decades after the 37th president resigned in disgrace and the government seized his papers and tapes, a change in the law is sending the material home, transforming Nixon's library from a private institution into a National Archives collection and making it eligible for millions of dollars in federal money.

Library officials are planning a new addition for the 46 million pages of records, 30,000 gifts and 3,700 hours of recordings, including the White House tapes that sealed Nixon's downfall.

Nixon supporters may get something less tangible as well -- a measure of validation for the library and perhaps for the man.

"He's always sort of been off to the side," said Ken Khachigian, a former Nixon speechwriter. "In effect, he's entering back into the presidential mainstream."

Some Nixon critics are portraying the transfer as the latest attempt by Nixon's partisans to control his legacy.

"At Yorba Linda, materials are used to resurrect Nixon's familiar ploy of rewriting his own history, as he wished it to be," historian Stanley Kutler, who sued in 1996 for access to the Nixon tapes, wrote in a Boston Globe opinion piece.

Library officials dispute that, noting that the library, which opened in 1990, will be run by the National Archives in the same way as the 11 other presidential libraries. Duties will be split between federal archivists and private foundation staff.

The transfer was made possible by language in a 2004 spending bill deleting a federal prohibition against removing Nixon's papers and tapes from the Washington area. California Republicans, including Rep. Gary Miller, who represents Yorba Linda, sought the change.

"I think the issue why they were held there is long gone," Miller said. "Why should this one library be different from every other presidential library in the United States?"

Before Nixon, presidential papers belonged to the president, though every chief executive from Franklin Roosevelt on donated his to the government in exchange for a publicly supported library.

After Nixon resigned in 1974, lawmakers afraid that he would destroy documents necessary for the Watergate investigation passed a law giving the government possession of his papers and tapes. Four years later, Congress passed the Presidential Records Act, abolishing private ownership of presidential papers.

It is expected to take until 2009 to transfer all Nixon's records to the library 30 miles south of Los Angeles. The National Archives first has to finish transcribing and making public 2,800 hours of tape recordings. So far, 2,019 hours have been released.

The move caps years of disputes over the records after Nixon's 1994 death. His estate fought the government to get the records back, finally accepting an $18 million settlement in 2000 as compensation for the material.

"To have all the materials united under one roof is something to which I'm looking forward," said Nixon's elder daughter, Tricia Nixon Cox. "I think that would have meant a lot to him, too."

The library, which draws about 150,000 visitors a year, got $500,000 in federal money in the 2005 budget to design the new addition, and in 2006 is looking for $3 million to $4 million to build the addition, and $2 million or more for National Archives staff.

If it all happens as planned, the only president ever to resign will have the same status as his peers in at least one respect.

"In effect you have a library like every other library," said Richard Norton Smith, former director of four presidential libraries. "And for some people, Richard Nixon isn't a president like every other president. So that's the question that will be debated as long as there are people who lived through Watergate."

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