MICHELE NORRIS, host:

It's been 37 years since Richard Nixon resigned the presidency because of the Watergate scandal. Watergate has become synonymous with the abuse of power nearly everywhere - except at the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, California. There, Watergate was described as an attempted coup d'etat by Democrats. But that changed yesterday.

NPR's Ina Jaffe got a preview of a brand-new Watergate gallery.

INA JAFFE: The Nixon Presidential Library used to be run by a private foundation of loyalists. But in 2007, the National Archives took over. And Tim Naftali, the current director of the Nixon Library, said replacing that old Watergate exhibit was an essential part of the deal.

Mr. TIM NAFTALI (Director, Nixon Presidential Library): How could people believe that our archivists were providing unfettered access to documents if our museum were viewed as biased?

JAFFE: Naftali is also the curator of the new Watergate exhibit. He says his goal was to create iPad history.

Mr. NAFTALI: Our main client is the 14-year-old visitor who is texting while you are telling them about people not only their grandparents' age, great-grandparents' age, but from a different era and culture.

JAFFE: So touring the gallery is not unlike surfing the Web. At the center of each section is an interactive video screen where, for example, you can hear some of the famous tapes that Nixon secretly recorded in the Oval Office - and read the transcription at the same time because they really are hard to understand.

(Soundbite of audio tape)

President RICHARD NIXON: (Unintelligible)

JAFFE: There's also a section on dirty tricks, and a discussion of Nixon's enemies list - a group of perceived critics of the president that he marked for harassment by government agencies. That group is represented by a photo of NPR's favorite Nixon enemy - and news analyst -the late Daniel Schorr.

You can also hear excerpts of the 131 oral histories that Naftali recorded with significant Watergate figures.

For example, just touch the screen, and you can hear Alexander Haig, who was Nixon's chief of staff as his presidency unraveled, saying that Nixon's biggest mistake was not burning the tapes - though he thought about it.

(Soundbite of recorded oral history)

Mr. ALEXANDER HAIG (Former Chief of Staff, Nixon Administration): He asked me to burn the tapes. He said: Would you be willing to do it? I said no. I said: Get someone who is not going to be held accountable for what he did.

JAFFE: Except for these oral histories, there is nothing in the gallery which is absolutely new, says Naftali. But there's a lot about Watergate that some scholars know but the general public doesn't.

Everyone knows, for example, that the Watergate scandal came to light with the burglary of the Democratic Party's headquarters by Republican operatives. But there's a tape here, says Naftali, where Nixon then plans a break-in of Republican headquarters.

Mr. NAFTALI: They would then blame the Democrats for having broken into the Republican National Committee. The president discusses how much money it would cost, and how much damage there should be done, and what they should take.

JAFFE: That scheme, and many others hatched by Richard Nixon, never happened, says Naftali, because people in the government said no.

Mr. NAFTALI: People who received orders that they would not, could not implement - that is a story that must be remembered. That is something that we have to teach students and future members of our government, that you can say no when you're asked to do something that is unconstitutional or illegal.

JAFFE: There was considerable conflict between the National Archives and the Nixon loyalists responsible for the old Watergate exhibit. Naftali said the only substantial change he made in response to their concerns was to include more of Richard Nixon's voice.

Perhaps the most poignant example is his goodbye to the White House staff on the day he left office.

Pres. NIXON: Those who hate you don't win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.

JAFFE: The wise words of a disgraced president, unable to take his own advice.

Ina Jaffe, NPR News.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.