Tim Naftali, the first director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum and a professor at NYU, explains:
About a month ago, the National Archives and Records Administration signaled in a notice to Congress that it was effectively renouncing its responsibility for fostering and disseminating nonpartisan public history. If Congress does not stop this plan, “NARA Notice 2022-125,” the National Archives will cede control of the museum and classrooms at the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas, Texas, to the private George W. Bush Foundation. The National Archives, which has run the Bush Library since its opening in 2013, will no longer be able to shape the design or have veto power over the text of exhibits in the museum, including on the war in Iraq, the global war on terror, Hurricane Katrina, and the start of the Great Recession.
The implications of the NARA plan would go far beyond what one presidential library in Dallas says about a very controversial war. Hidden in the new NARA notice is language indicating that the approach for the Bush Library would be a model for all future libraries: “This change … reflects our intent, with regard to museum operations, for the administrations of George W. Bush forward.” In other words, this approach will also govern any future Donald J. Trump Presidential Library. Imagine the January 6 exhibit that the Trump facility will put in its museum, let alone its coverage of the impeachment and the 2020 election. It would be as if an Andrew Johnson Presidential Foundation produced the text for a national museum on Reconstruction.
As the inaugural federal director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, I have firsthand experience of what happens when presidential loyalists privatize presidential history. Until 2007, when its museum and research area were turned over to NARA and the entire facility was renamed, the private Richard Nixon Library (which had been placed outside the NARA system as a consequence of Watergate) taught visitors that Watergate was a coup orchestrated by the media and Democratic elites to overturn the 1972 election, that responsibility for the Kent State massacre was ambiguous, that the Watergate plumbers didn’t matter, that the enemies list was the product of a rogue presidential staffer (John W. Dean), and, in the end, that Nixon didn’t do anything his predecessors hadn’t done, except get caught.
The National Archives, before I was hired, had asked the Nixon loyalists running the institution to fix the Watergate exhibit on their own. They couldn’t. Richard Nixon had been personally involved in the original exhibit, and there was, I was told, a disagreement among his allies over how, or even whether, to revise this sacred text. So it became my task as the first federal director to curate a new exhibit. It would be a baptism by fire. Presidential families tend not to take kindly to public criticisms of their father, especially in a building with their name over the front door. But all powerful people have complex legacies—gaining power is rough stuff—and fair and accurate assessments of how they gained power and what they did with it are a necessary ingredient of a free society, especially when that name over the door abused our trust.
Avoiding this future is now up to Congress, which, under the Presidential Libraries Act, has 60 days to approve or reject this plan. (In its notice, NARA stated that the transition is already under way but will need Congress’s authorization to be made permanent.) Despite the plan’s implications for public history about the Iraq War and January 6 , the current Congress might just go along with it. Surprisingly, the spiritual father of this new approach to presidential libraries is Barack Obama, whose foundation announced in 2019 that his presidential museum and educational programming would be private affairs. (Since the establishment of the first presidential library—Franklin D. Roosevelt’s—the National Archives has traditionally run the museums and their educational programs.)
Read the entire piece here.
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