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Setting the Watergate Record Straight

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Visiting the Richard Nixon Library in Yorba Linda used to be as much an edifying journey through the 37th president's life as an exercise in fact-checking and second-guessing. The room dedicated to covering the Watergate scandal, for instance, treats you to several nuggets of wisdom that make you wonder whether you were really awake in that history class you took a while ago.

Consider this: did you know that Watergate was actually nothing more than a "coup" engineered by Nixon's vicious enemies to bring down our beloved former president? What about the fact that Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were offered bribes to further their groundbreaking investigative reporting (eat your heart out, liberal media types)?

Yes, such "truisms" helped give the Nixon library a reputation for being one of the most ridiculed and "kicked-around of presidential libraries," one that made visitors wonder they should "laugh or cry," according to Nixon scholar David Greenberg. "Its level of reality is only slightly better than Disneyland," joked Stanley Kutler, another Nixon scholar.

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Hopefully that will all change soon with the arrival of Timothy Naftali, a Cold War scholar previously with the University of Virginia, who will be guiding the library's transition from a privately owned facility (the only one in the country) to one run under the National Archives as its first federal director. His first task was "reforming" the Watergate gallery by tearing the exhibit down and rebuilding it anew with a more objective presentation of the facts underlying the scandal that sunk Nixon's presidency. "You're going to have the story of dirty tricks — you have to," said Naftali.

Naftali wants a "360 degree look at the issue," complete with a series of oral accounts ("snippets" and full interviews) by the scandal's main players, including Egil "Bud" Krogh, who engineered the break-in of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office, and Jeb Magruder, who supervised the Watergate break-in as White House aide. Upon completion, the new exhibit will also feature selections from the infamous White House tapes, news coverage and footage of the hearings and scanned archives.

The new director's goal is to make it "an interactive, self-curated experience." Whether or not these changes will do much to boost attendance and improve the library's shoddy reputation remains to be seen. Who knows? It may even give Disneyland, that other Southern Californian attraction, a run for its money.

photo by Joits via flickr