Nixon library in California ends whitewash of Watergate

For twenty years visitors the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace were told that Watergate scandal was a very fortunate step for Nixon's rivals and the investigative reporting team of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein offered bribes for their nation-shaking scoops.

Now, as the privately run library passes to federal control, its new director is taking some of the whitewash off the scandal resulting from the break-in at Democratic headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington and the subsequent White House cover-up.

The revised account is a precondition for receiving 42 million pages of the former president's papers and nearly 4,000 hours of tapes from the National Archives.

A simple ribbon-cutting ceremony Wednesday will usher the black sheep of presidential libraries into the fold of the prestigious National Archives, where it will join 11 others honoring presidents Herbert Hoover to Bill Clinton. Federal officials also will unveil 78,000 pages of previously unavailable Nixon papers and 11 1/2 hours of tapes.

The papers, which will give new insight into the 37th president's role as a Republican strategist and party leader, were a gift from the Nixon Foundation and aren't usually part of a presidential collection, said Susan Cooper, a spokeswoman for the National Archives. They join Nixon's pre- and post-presidential papers, which were already in California.

"This presidency is going to be the best-documented presidency in history," she said. "We have this treasure trove that other presidents don't have to give us and usually don't give us."

But with the stamp of the federal system comes a major makeover for certain less-than-accurate exhibits - a relief to Nixon scholars who were frustrated by the way the private institution had portrayed the Watergate scandal and Nixon's foreign policy.

Director Timothy Niftali recently oversaw the demolition of the revisionist Watergate gallery, including a section that said the scandal was a coup plotted by Democrats. The museum also told visitors that the infamous 18 1/2-minute gap in one important White House tape - a conversation three days after the break-in - was because of a mechanical malfunction.

"No serious historian believes in that," said David Greenberg, a Nixon scholar and professor at Rutgers University. "It's not only not true, it's the opposite of truth. There was a lot along those lines in the library, which was not a matter of interpretation, but was flat wrong, a lie."

In its place, Niftali promises an updated display featuring oral accounts from key players in the Watergate saga, a selection of White House tapes, clips from broadcast news and footage of the Watergate hearings.