Tim Naftali, the former director of the Nixon library, has enough of secular outlook that he didn’t know (or perhaps jokingly claimed not to) that he had inherited his surname from one of Jacob’s fractious sons. Still, his Yorba Linda years comprised a wilderness experience of Hebrew Testament proportions. As he sometimes reminded me, I was the one who first beckoned him into the trackless wastes. I also helped give him his toughest challenge: Replacing the private library’s relentlessly pro-Nixon Watergate exhibit. I’m sorry about the times I made his work unnecessarily difficult and grateful that he beat disgraced Nixon chief of staff Bob Haldeman’s boys and finished what history had called him to do.
No public historian since the Enola Gay controversy at the Smithsonian Institution had a harder challenge. He was uniquely qualified for it. He was a highly regarded, non-ideological scholar of the Cold War, the central event of Nixon’s public life. A few years before he came to Yorba Linda, Tim and I had worked together a little on presidential tapes, by which Nixon’s historical reputation is utterly bound and tied, for better and worse. Tim wasn’t a Nixon booster, and I think he ended up deeply discouraged about Nixon’s character as a result of his forced curatorial march through the Watergate swamp. Yet he and the last elected moderate Republican president would have disagreed on relatively few domestic or foreign policy issues. Perhaps most important given the odds he faced, he displayed the quality Nixon prized most of all. It turns out that Tim Naftali was tough as hell.
This is a fascinating read. Archivists on the front lines of history, a president’s legacy in bitter contention, unknown infiltrators attacking a man’s good work, this has it all. I don’t think everything has come out in the open regarding the mess that is the management of the Nixon Archives yet, but every new tidbit is more interesting than the last.