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Nixon Library unveils new Watergate exhibit that had sparked controversy

March 31, 2011 |  2:05 pm

The new Watergate exhibit was unveiled Thursday at the Nixon Library.

After decades of being derided as little more than a legacy-and-curio shop designed to burnish Richard Nixon's image at the expense of the historical record, the Yorba Linda library bearing his name on Thursday unveiled a raw and detailed look at the scandal that drove him from office.

The $500,000 Watergate exhibit, four years in the making, features interactive screens, White House tapes and 131 taped interviews that replace the perfunctory, much-ridiculed narrative of Watergate that Nixon himself approved when the library opened with private funds in 1990.

Where the old exhibit featured a heavily edited version of the "smoking gun" tape that sealed Nixon's resignation in 1974, the new exhibit presents it in full. Where the old text contended that a "mechanical malfunction" explained the infamous 18 1/2-minute gap of a key taped Nixon conversation, visitors will now be told it was likely a deliberate erasure. Where a dim and uninviting corridor once stood, there are bright graphics and artful fonts.

At the exhibit's ribbon-cutting Thursday, Timothy Naftali, director of the federally run library, said the exhibit reflected "our self-confidence as a people," and was evidence of a democracy unafraid of examining "evidence of its own wrongdoing." At its core, Naftali said, the Watergate story was about "the self-correcting mechanism of our Constitution when one of the branches exceeds its authority."

Nixon Foundation Chairman Ronald Walker was muted in his reaction, calling the exhibit "a particular interpretation of Watergate" and saying the scandal was "one chapter in Richard Nixon's long and consequential career."

Last summer, when Nixon stalwarts -- some former aides and assistants to the president -- got a glimpse of how the library planned to portray the Watergate scandal, they responded with a 158-page memo assailing the proposed exhibit line by line, panel by panel.

The Nixon Foundation decried the exhibit, which was originally scheduled to open last July, as being "judgmental," with a "gross imbalance" and a "lack of context." They asked that it be modified and that Watergate figures such as H.R. Haldeman be cast in a more "complimentary" light.


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Photo: The new Watergate exhibit at the Nixon Library includes a timeline with touchscreens and tapes. Credit: Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times