For Nixon’s 100th Birthday, Supporters Seek to Reshape Legacy

By Ian Kullgren

January 11, 2013

About a mile away from the Watergate complex, President Richard Nixon’s loyalists regrouped for the first time in years.  

More than 400 Nixon relatives and former staff members packed into an ornate ballroom at the Mayflower Renaissance Hotel on Wednesday night to celebrate the late leader’s 100th birthday ­– one of the larger gatherings of his supporters since Aug. 9, 1974, when Nixon resigned to avoid impeachment.

The timing served as a starting point for a broad campaign by Nixon’s supporters to rewrite the narrative of his tarnished presidency. The Richard Nixon Foundation, a nonprofit organization, funded by the former president’s family and friends, announced a $25 million campaign to renovate the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, Calif., to provide more supporter-funded historical information. 

The speakers, who included former secretary of state Henry Kissinger and Nixon’s two daughters, Tricia Nixon Cox and Julie Nixon Eisenhower, painted a portrait of a dedicated peacemaker who ended the Vietnam War and negotiated peace in the Middle East. 

They skated around Watergate, offering only veiled ­– and at times misleading – references to the scandal.

“Would there be a Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library if Richard Nixon had not selected this man as vice president?” said former GOP presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, who served as Nixon’s senior adviser.

Faded Nixon campaign signs greeted guests in the cocktail lounge. Hundreds of birthday balloons floated around guests as they ate cake for dessert. The large cake was a replica of his quaint childhood home, complete with meticulously detailed white siding and a manicured lawn.

The foundation has a history of conflict with historians from the National Archives, whom the federal government commissioned to correct inaccuracies in the museum about the Watergate scandal. In 2006, historian Tim Naftali was appointed as the museum’s director. He spent five years renovating the Watergate exhibit, which had accused Democrats of trying to overturn election results by ousting Nixon and questioned reporting procedures by The Washington Post, which broke the story.

“They saw him as they victim of a witch hunt,” Naftali said in a phone interview from West Hollywood Calif., where he now works as a historical author. He said some Nixon supporters argued that he behaved no differently that other presidents. “It was that he was a victim of a double standard.”

Foundation leaders, however, say they want to reframe the story of Nixon’s presidency to include his accomplishments along with his shortcomings.

“The idea is not to confound or combat the critics,” Fred Malek, the fundraiser’s chairman, said in an interview. “It’s to get the positives of the manifold accomplishments of this president out to more people.”

Malek, who held several government jobs during the Nixon presidency, would not discuss specific changes the foundation will make to the museum because it is too early in the process, but he said one of the major goals is to put more museum materials online. Although it just officially began, the foundation already has received $4.5 million in donations for what they named the Richard Nixon Centennial Legacy Campaign.

“He reflected the qualities that make a great leader,” Kissinger said during his keynote speech. “Courage and character.”

By Ian Kullgren

January 11, 2013