It has become tradition that every American president opens his own library and museum in his home town as a, most often, glowing tribute to his years in the White House. In Los Angeles, there are two such presidential libraries, in completely different parts of the vast city – Ronald Reagan in Simi Valley in the north, and Richard Nixon in Yorba Linda in the south.
It’s possible to visit both in one day, with a little luck with the traffic, by jumping from freeway to freeway, straight through Los Angeles’ downtown.
The Reagan library, high on a hill — in the middle of nowhere — with sweeping views of the neighborhood and its treeless, sunburned hills, is such a glowing tribute, only bigger and more glowing than usual – with a statue of Reagan as a cowboy, a piece of Berlin Wall, antique cars, and his old plane, Air Force One, as part of it all.
”One man had the courage”…”he fought for freedom”…“he set out to change the nation”… “he refused to surrender…”
Not a bad word. Reagan’s memory is to be cherished. The Iran-contra scandal, for example, now mentioned in passing was not mentioned at all for a long time.
Richard Nixon’s much more modest library in Yorba Linda, the little town where he was born, was also a flattering tribute to his years in the White House, until March this year, when it opened the Watergate Gallery about the biggest presidential scandal in American history — the only one that forced a sitting president to resign. The permanent exhibition, which opened after a long battle and strong opposition from Nixon loyalists, asks the question:
“Why Watergate Matters? Since the 1970s the public and the media have attached the suffix, –gate, to major American political scandals. Why did Watergate sear itself into the public imagination and our history? And what is its legacy for us today? Did public expectation about the use of presidential power change because of Watergate? What, if anything, can it teach us about our rights as citizens and the workings of our Constitution?”
It describes in direct terms, without excuses, how Nixon set the stage that would lead to the Watergate scandal, with Donald Segretti’s “dirty tricks” and the “plumbers” and G. Gordon Liddy, which were followed by the break-in at the Watergate on June 17, 1972, and, ultimately, Nixon’s resignation on August 9, 1974.
“Our long, national nightmare is over,” said his successor Gerald Ford.
The Watergate exhibit has triggered a debate about the purpose of presidential libraries and museums, all run by the National Archives. Nixon Library director Timothy J. Naftali to the New York Times:
”The library has a nonpartisan mission, it’s a nonpartisan federal institution, and it has an obligation to provide exhibits that encourage the study of history”.
The Reagan Library has become a place of pilgrimage for America’s conservatives. They have never made a pilgrimage to Yorba Linda, and will probably never do so. But let us hope that all who are interested in American modern history pay a visit to the Nixon Library. It’s well worth the time.