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DEBORAH AMOS, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Deborah Amos.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand.

Here in California today the Richard M. Nixon Library and Birthplace quietly switched hands. It changed from private oversight to being part of the public presidential library system run by the National Archives.

AMOS: Federal oversight will open up aspects of the Nixon presidency that have been close to historians and the general public for decades.

NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates visited the library just a few days before it went public and here's her report.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: Visitors to the Nixon Library here in the former president's birthplace of Yorba Linda, California won't immediately notice that the site is now under federal administration. They can still walk around the armored limousine that Nixon inherited from his predecessor, Lyndon Johnson.

Unidentified Man #1: The car itself is the first of the armored limousines that was built. It traveled over 251,000 air miles. It has about 51,000 ground miles...

BATES: And the living room from the late 1950s still has comfy armchairs facing an old-fashioned console TV playing a doctored version of the 1960 debates between Jack Kennedy and Richard Nixon.

(Soundbite of archived 1960s television debate)

President RICHARD NIXON: Senator Kennedy has said tonight again what he has said several times in the course of this - these debates and in the campaign, that America is standing still. America is not standing still.

BATES: It's more of a one-sided debate though. Here at the library, a narrator takes over Kennedy's response.

Unidentified Man: The myth of the 1960 debates is that Kennedy beat Nixon and...

GRIGSBY-BATES: And that, in a nutshell, is why this library is now being run by the National Archives. Most serious scholars outright rejected the original library's sanitized, one-sided version of history. That's where Timothy Naftali comes in.

Mr. TIMOTHY NAFTALI (Director, Nixon Presidential Library): This interests me. All presidents choose a space to recreate in their presidential library.

GRIGSBY-BATES: A historian who specializes in the Cold War, Naftali came to the archives last fall from the University of Virginia's Miller Center for Political Affairs. He specialized there in presidential oral histories.

Mr. NAFTALI: Of course I know that this has been a controversial space. But my job was to start something new and to take the good from the past and benefit from this facility and move forward.

GRIGSBY-BATES: Even the administration's most infamous legacy will have a new look. Right now the space is mostly sage green walls with holes, new lighting, and little else.

Mr. NAFTALI: This is going to be a new Watergate gallery. Well, first of all, this was the space that the private foundation used for Watergate. This is what we use now. And over time we can restructure.

GRIGSBY-BATES: Tim Naftali is determined to present what he calls the 360-degrees of Watergate. To that end some of the new material being released today is hardly flattering.

(Soundbite of tape)

Unidentified Man #1: A lot of jackasses just hold on the basis (unintelligible)

GRIGSBY-BATES: In this tape if you listen closely, you'll hear the president and aide H.R. Haldeman making plans to fire some of his Cabinet and staff.

(Soundbite of tape)

Unidentified Man #2: Now what should I say to the Senate? Shall I say that I know who you are and (unintelligible) future plans or

Unidentified Man #3: Just say that I will be discussing (unintelligible) for the short term.

GRIGSBY-BATES: Naftali is big on letting visitors draw their own conclusions. It's a natural counterbalance, he says, to a president's inclination to control how the world sees him.

Mr. NAFTALI: White Houses are not in the business of telling us the truth about what the president does. I don't care what party you're talking about. The idea that spin is something new is not true. It's something that comes with the territory. All White Houses are like that.

GRIGSBY-BATES: Naftali says he wants visitors to get a more nuanced view of a complicated man doing a complicated job, flaws and all. That's good news to former Nixon administration lawyer John Dean.

As the president's counsel, Dean was intimately involved in the White House cover-up of the Watergate break-in and spent time in prison for it. Dean has written two books about the Nixon years, but he's never visited the Nixon Library. He had the same objection as many academics.

Mr. JOHN DEAN (Nixon's Legal Counsel): I've stayed away from the place from day one because it's just - it's fantasyland to me, you know, from - everyone who I know who I respect...

GRIGSBY-BATES: Dean is now a retired investment banker who lives in Beverly Hills. During Watergate, he became a Nixon critic. He remembers trying to get access to some Nixon papers when he wrote his own account of Watergate three decades ago.

Mr. DEAN: I couldn't get papers out of the Nixon foundation with a subpoena, some years ago when I tried. So assume that will change when the National Archives runs the place.

GRIGSBY-BATES: Tim Naftali hopes historians, journalists and curious citizens will find a distinctly different attitude these days.

Mr. NAFTALI: We're talking about real openness here. And you know what? These days we need some openness about how our governments act. It's healthy for us as a democracy to have these sorts of things released.

GRIGSBY-BATES: And they'll be both downloadable and free in both print and audio format. Naftali doesn't only concentrate on serious matters of state, though. He knows Nixon is a favorite parody in popular culture. Here's Dan Akyroyd's recurring Nixon doing "Saturday Night Live"'s golden years.

(Soundbite of TV show "Saturday Night Live")

Mr. DAN AYKROYD (Actor): (As Richard Nixon) You, Kennedy. You always look so good. They're going to find out about to find out about you someday. Oh yes. Having sex with women, the president, within these very walls...

GRIGSBY-BATES: As a part of the walk-up to the library's reopening, Naftali decided to open an exhibit in January that will commemorate Elvis Pressley's unannounced visit to the White House in 1970.

Mr. NAFTALI: Elvis comes into the White House and he's wearing something that's little Batman, little sort of half-Batman and half Liberace.

GRIGSBY-BATES: Then Nixon's bespangled guest proceeds to hand him a handwritten letter. It contained an offer that, considering his source, was absolutely psychedelic.

Mr. NAFTALI: I really connect with young people. They understand me. And I think I can help you with your fight against drug abuse.

GRIGSBY-BATES: It was a very popular exhibit. The Nixon-Elvis souvenirs - watches, pens, notepads - remain the museum gift shop's most popular items.

Tim Naftali hopes every visitor will understand the new Nixon Library is still evolving and that there's room for many points of view.

Mr. NAFTALI: This library is a work in progress. But I am hopeful that the first effort will be something that people will find interesting, acceptable and fair.

GRIGSBY-BATES: And if they don't, he's pretty sure people will feel comfortable enough to tell him so.

Karen Grigsby-Bates, NPR News.

(Soundbite of song "Jailhouse Rock")

Mr. ELVIS PRESSLEY (Singer): (Singing) The warden threw a party in the county jail. The prison band was there and they began to wail. The band was jumpin'...

BRAND: The Nixon Library staff aren't the only ones grappling with the Nixon legacy. The late president's alma mater is Whittier College here in Southern California. I talked with Whittier's president about how the campus deals with the Nixon stigma.

You can listen to the conversation on our Web site, npr.org.

(Soundbite of song "Jailhouse Rock")

Mr. ELVIS PRESSLEY (Singer): (Singing) Spider murphy played the tenor saxophone, Little joe was blowin on the slide trombone. The drummer boy from illinois went crash, boom, bang. The whole rhythm section was the purple gang. Lets rock, everybody, lets rock. Everybody in the whole cell block was dancin to the jailhouse rock. Number forty-seven said to number three: You're the cutest jailbird I ever did see. I sure would be delighted with your company. Come on and do the jailhouse rock with me. Let's rock, everybody, let's rock.

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