Conflict over the Nixon Presidential Library

Written by

Richard Millhouse Nixon was the 37th president of the United States. He built his early political career as a conservative and staunch anti-communist, but as president he went on to normalize relations with communist China and establish the Environmental Protection Agency. He was known for his keen intellect and deep interest in foreign policy, but critics say he could also be ruthless and paranoid when it came to his political enemies. (Photo: National Archives)

If you love 20th Century American history or are just a political junkie, visiting the Richard Nixon Presidential Library & Museum in Yorba Linda is a little like being a kid in a candy store. The library is an enormous storehouse of memorabilia related to the personal and political life of the man who went on to become America’s 37th president. Beneath the public areas, visiting scholars can study millions of individual documents and audio recordings relating to Nixon’s tenure in office and his conduct of both domestic and foreign policy.

But Nixon’s presidency was one the most controversial in American history, with his final years in office marred by multiple scandals that led to the threat of impeachment and Nixon’s resignation.Those controversies have persisted over the decades and they’ve often cast a pall over the management of the Nixon Library. Many historians and political commentators argue that the institution has too often downplayed Nixon’s full record in office, warts and all. Critics have also worried about the role of Nixon loyalists and family members in running the library.

Those concerns have been renewed recently with the appointment of Michael Ellzey as the new director of the Nixon Library & Museum. Ellzey’s supporters say he is a skilled manager who will provide much needed leadership for an institution that hasn’t had a director in three years. But critics worry about Ellzey’s credentials and whether he has the experience to run a presidential library, especially one that involves a chief executive as controversial and divisive as Richard Nixon.

The Nixon Library is filled with items reflecting reflecting Nixon's decades' long career in national politics.  Born in Orange County, Nixon was elected to the House of Representatives in 1946 and the Senate in 1950. Nixon served for eight years as Dwight Eisenhower's vice-president.  He ran for the presidency in 1960, but lost to John F. Kennedy. He was also defeated when he ran for governor of California against Pat Brown in 1962. In 1968 he was elected president. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez) The Nixon Library is filled with items reflecting reflecting Nixon's decades-long career in national politics. Born in Orange County, Nixon was elected to the House of Representatives in 1946 and the Senate in 1950. He then served for eight years as Dwight Eisenhower's vice-president. Nixon first ran for the presidency in 1960, but lost to John F. Kennedy. He was also defeated when he ran for governor of California against Pat Brown in 1962. In 1968 he was elected president. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)
The Nixon Library is filled with items reflecting reflecting Nixon’s decades’ long career in national politics. Born in Orange County, Nixon was elected to the House of Representatives in 1946 and the Senate in 1950. Nixon served for eight years as Dwight Eisenhower’s vice-president. He ran for the presidency in 1960, but lost to John F. Kennedy. He was also defeated when he ran for governor of California against Pat Brown in 1962. In 1968 he was elected president. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)
One of the most iconic objects at the Nixon Library is the former president's presidential helicopter. It's the helicopter Nixon boarded to depart the White House after resigning from office in 1974, an episode seen by millions of Americans on live television. The helicopter, a Sikorsky Sea King, was retired from service in  1976 ended up in an aircraft salvage yard until it was restored at March Air Force Base.  It was put on display at the Nixon Library in 2006.   (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)
One of the most iconic objects at the Nixon Library is the former president’s  helicopter. It’s the chopper Nixon boarded to depart the White House after resigning from office in 1974, an episode seen by millions of Americans on live television. The helicopter, a Sikorsky Sea King, was retired from service in 1976 and ended up in an aircraft salvage yard until it was restored at March Air Force Base. It was put on display at the Nixon Library in 2006. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)
One constant struggle for the Nixon Library has been how to portray the Nixon Administration's scandals, particularly Watergate. What started as a failed break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington D.C. mushroomed into a cover-up by Nixon staffers and the eventual resignation of the president in 1974. A new exhibit about Watergate was installed by former library director Timothy Naftali in 2011. It's considered comprehensive and doesn't pull any punches when it comes to Richard Nixon's personal involvement in Watergate. The exhibit, though, has reportedly angered former Nixon staffers and family members. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)
One constant struggle for the Nixon Library has been how to portray the Nixon Administration’s scandals, particularly Watergate. What started as a failed break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington D.C. by men working for Nixon loyalists mushroomed into a cover-up by the administration  and the eventual resignation of the president in 1974. A new exhibit about Watergate was installed by former library director Timothy Naftali in 2011. It’s considered comprehensive and doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to Richard Nixon’s personal involvement in the affair. The exhibit, though, has reportedly angered former Nixon staffers and family members who fought without success to change it.  (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)
Michael Ellzey is the new director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library &  Museum. He's a Vietnam veteran and has served as director of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco and Orange County's Great Park. Some scholars have questioned Ellzey's qualifications for the job, noting that most presidential libraries are directed by historians or archivists. How does Ellzey respond? "Job one when I got here wasn't to go sit in the Library and learn all about the president," he says. " Job one in my view was organizational management," (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)
Michael Ellzey is the new director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library &  Museum. He’s a Vietnam veteran and has served as director of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco and Orange County’s Great Park. Some scholars have questioned Ellzey’s qualifications for the job, noting that most presidential libraries are directed by historians or archivists. How does Ellzey respond? “Job one when I got here wasn’t to go sit in the Library and learn all about the president,” he says. ” Job one in my view was organizational management,” (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)
Richard Nixon, who died in 1994, is buried at the library next to his wife Pat, who died the year before. In keeping with Nixon's wishes before his death, his funeral was not a full state funeral. Eulogists included Bill Clinton and former secretary of state Henry Kissinger. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)
Richard Nixon, who died in 1994, is buried at the library next to his wife Pat. In keeping with Nixon’s wishes before his death, his funeral was not a full and formal state funeral. Eulogists at the event  included Bill Clinton and Henry Kissinger. The words chiseled on Nixon’s tombstone read  “The greatest honor that history can bestow is the title of peacemaker”(Photo: Saul Gonzalez)