Museums & Exhibits

By William M. Welch, USA TODAY

Updated 4/1/2011 11:37:17 AM

The Nixon Presidential Library and Museum opened its long-awaited Watergate Gallery on Thursday, replacing a version of history written and financed by Nixon's friends that dismissed the scandal as a political coup by Democrats.

YORBA LINDA, Calif. — Two decades after his presidential library opened to the public, and almost 37 years after he left office, Richard Nixon's museum is taking a clear-eyed view of the scandal that forced him from the White House.

The $500,000 remaking of the Watergate section of the museum by the National Archives, which took control of the Nixon library and museum in 2007, has interactive exhibits and displays describing the scandal and cover-up that led to the president's resignation and criminal convictions of aides.

"The public deserves an objective, non-partisan presidential museum for their money," says Tim Naftali, director of the library and curator of its Watergate section.

The story is told in vivid detail. There are the lock-picking tools used to break into the Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate building in Washington, the handwritten address book of one of the burglars that provided the first link of the crime to the White House and audio from the tapes that revealed Nixon's participation in a coverup.

There is even a lighted display showing where Nixon hid microphones in the Oval Office and other rooms, many in light fixtures.

"This is a fantastic achievement for the Nixon library and the National Archives," says Jon Wiener, history professor at the University of California-Irvine, who criticized the museum's earlier treatment of the topic.

Unlike other presidential libraries, the Nixon library long operated apart from the federal government's National Archives, which by law is responsible for presidential papers and other documents. In part, that was due to legal disputes over ownership of Nixon's audio tapes, Wiener says.

Nixon's library was begun and financed by Nixon loyalists, with his cooperation. It opened in 1990 on the site of what once was the Nixon family's citrus farm. Nixon, who died in 1994, is buried there.

The library initially relegated Watergate to a dim corridor. The National Archives took over in 2007 by agreement with the Nixon Foundation, clearing the way for it to become the repository for all Nixon's presidential documents.

Foundation Chairman Ronald Walker said in a statement that he hopes visitors recognize that Nixon's legacy is more than Watergate.

"The new Watergate exhibit at the Nixon Library represents one interpretation of the events that led to President Nixon's resignation in 1974," Walker said.

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