Congress Frees Nixon Papers

Posted January 23, 2004 at 5:48pm

When the omnibus spending bill finally passed the Senate last week, federal employees, lobbyists and interest groups all over town breathed a sigh of relief. And so did Julie Nixon Eisenhower.

“I’m just so relieved that it’s happening and I know my parents would be happy that it is,” said the daughter of former President Richard Nixon.

For years, Eisenhower and her family have quietly fought to have her father’s presidential papers transferred from the National Archives to the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace in Yorba Linda, Calif. A 1974 law prohibited the records from being moved out of the Washington, D.C., area.

Tucked away in the $328 billion omnibus, between sections on travel agent fees and the Oklahoma City National Memorial, is a line that marks the culmination of Eisenhower’s battle: “The Archivist may transfer such recordings and materials to a Presidential archival depository.”

An Agreement

In anticipation of the omnibus’ passage, several representatives of the National Archives travelled to Yorba Linda in mid-January to negotiate with Nixon Library officials on the details of transferring the materials.

Also present were lobbyists Gerald Warburg and Christine O’Connor of Cassidy & Associates, the firm retained by the Nixon Foundation to help push through the change.

The National Archives and the Nixon Library have reached a basic agreement and are now hammering out the final details and timetable. The formal transfer of the Nixon facility into the federal presidential library system is expected to take place in 2005, though it could take several years before all of the materials — the much-publicized audiotapes as well as 46 million pages of documents and thousands of photographs and videotapes — are moved.

The fact that the transfer will take place at all is indicative of the fact that the issue of Nixon’s papers — and his legacy — has lost at least some of its potential for divisiveness. For Eisenhower, who has garnered support from such luminaries as former President Gerald Ford, the wait has been a long one. “As President Ford told me recently, ‘It’s time,’” she said.


The Debate

For years, some historians have been vocal in their criticism of the way the Nixon family has dealt with the former president’s personal papers. They have alleged that the current Nixon library has tried to preserve his legacy by zealously guarding vital historical materials.

“The [Nixon] foundation has been mucking around with those records for years and years and keeping them out of the public eye,” said Anna Nelson, a longtime critic who is a resident historian at American University.

The possibility of Nixon’s presidential papers moving from their current home in College Park, Md., to California raised concern among some historians that the National Archives might not in the end be allowed complete control of ensuring public access to the materials.

“One hesitation that some in the historical community have had is that the the relationship between the Nixon Library and the National Archives in the past has been so acrimonious,” said Bruce Craig, the director of the National Coalition for History.

For those reasons, supporters point out that the bill includes a line ensuring that nothing in the new language “may be construed as affecting public access to the materials and recordings.” They also emphasize that the National Archives will have ultimate control.

“The historians who are informed know that nothing can be hidden away because it’s administered by the National Archives,” said Eisenhower. “We have absolutely no say over anything.”

The transfer will mean that all of Nixon’s presidential papers could be in the same location as all of his materials from before and after his tenure in the White House.

“The thing about which there is a consensus is that it is in the public’s interest for all of these records to be gathered in one place,” said John Taylor, the executive director of the Library & Birthplace Foundation.


Securing Passage

Eisenhower first became acquainted with Cassidy & Associates lobbyists when she was in Washington earlier in 2003 doing work for the Eisenhower Medical Center.

Warburg said he took Eisenhower to lunch in the Senate Dining Room and was struck by how many Senators came up to her to pay their respects, indicating that there was a reservoir of goodwill for the Nixon family.

When the foundation hired Cassidy to work on the papers issue, Warburg, O’Connor and lobbyist Gregg Hartley set about trying to devise a strategy.

“I don’t think we had a clear sense of how we wanted to play it,” said Warburg, explaining that the idea “did not meet with uniform enthusiasm at the outset.”

Initially, the Cassidy lobbyists thought that they should seek an agreement on how the transfer of the materials would take place before seeking Congressional action. But National Archives officials were wary of entering discussion with the Nixon Library until the law had been changed, so the lobbyists ended up taking their planned last step first.

Warburg said Eisenhower emphasized the importance of reaching out to Congressional Democrats and enlisting their support for the language. Some Democrats were sought out because of their specific connections to the issue.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), for example, was contacted because the records are currently housed in the Steny Hoyer Research Complex in College Park. The blessing of Sen. Daniel Inouye (D) was also sought because the Hawaiian was an active member of the Senate Watergate Committee in 1973 and 1974.

In addition to those Democrats, appropriators and members of both parties’ leadership, Eisenhower and the lobbyists enlisted the aid of House Government Reform Chairman Tom Davis (R-Va.) and ranking member Henry Waxman (D-Calif.). Davis is a longtime friend of Eisenhower and her husband, David Eisenhower, and was eager to help. He encountered little resistance along the way.

“We’re simply overcoming the anomaly of Nixon being the only president between Hoover and Clinton without a government-operated library,” said Davis spokesman David Marin.

When Davis was first escorting Julie Nixon Eisenhower around the Capitol, they ran into Waxman on his way to a vote. He quickly agreed to assist, and the two men wrote a letter to Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) in November expressing their support for the provision.

Though it took a bit longer before the omnibus passed, that was a relatively short time to wait for Eisenhower.

“I’m just glad to get it done,” she said.