The Tangled Legal Skein That Ensnarls Nixon's Records And Tapes

April 23, 1997|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- You may have seen where the National Archives is considering settling its longtime dispute with the Richard Nixon family over his White House tapes and other records by shelling out $26 million to his estate and taking over the privately run Nixon Library in California.

The stated motivation by National Archivist John Carlin is to resolve the legal disputes over possession of the materials and thereby somehow increase public access to them, now throttled by cumbersome procedures specified in a 1974 law. The argument is made that lengthy court action would wind up costing Uncle Sam even more.

But according to a report in the Washington Post, the National Archives tentatively agreed as part of the deal to permit possible destruction of 819 hours of Nixon White House tapes deemed to include "personal or private" discussions barred from public disclosure by the law. Only the intercession of the Clinton White House, the Post reported, blocked that aspect of the deal.

Apparently still on track is the plan to ship all the Nixon tapes and other records to the "library," which is essentially a museum glorifying Nixon and run by loyalists. The critical question is whether the National Archives, if it took over the private facility at Nixon's birthplace in Yorba Linda, would restaff with trained archivists or leave it in the hands of the staunch Nixonites.

Stan Katz, president of the American Council of Learned Societies in New York, says "the notion of paying at all for those papers is outrageous" and the more so for thinking of shipping them to what he calls "a propaganda mill for the memory of Richard Nixon."

Mr. Katz says he expects that the National Archives would keep the papers under professional archivist care separate from the museum, as is now done with the Gerald R. Ford Library at Ann Arbor, Michigan, and the Ford Museum in Mr. Ford's old hometown of Grand Rapids. Mr. Katz expresses concern, however, that most existing presidential libraries operated by the National Archives are "weakly controlled" from Washington.

Ed Grabosky, formerly head of the National Archives staff charged with handling the Nixon tapes and now assigned elsewhere in the agency, does not share Mr. Katz's confidence that the Nixon tapes would escape the Nixon loyalists if they were sent to Yorba Linda. He supposes that if only for budgetary reasons the National Archives would offer the existing staff there the opportunity to stay on.

Trained archivists

Currently, he says, about 20 trained archivists in the Washington area are assigned to review the Nixon tapes, and the chances that they would be relocated at federal expense, or would even want to go to California, are questionable.

There is also the question of the exhibits in the private "library," most conspicuously one on Watergate. It presents a Nixonian view of what happened that doesn't square in important respects with the facts as developed in the Senate hearings 25 years ago and as learned from the tapes. Mr. Grabosky says he isn't sure whether the National Archives would present a more factual version, or just let the Nixon Watergate version stand as a museum exhibit.

After Nixon's resignation in 1974, Congress passed the law confiscating the tapes and records out of concern that they would be destroyed. In 1991, a federal judge ruled that Nixon held his tapes only "as a trustee for the American people" and wasn't entitled to be paid for them, but a year later a three-judge court reversed him, saying compensation was due.

Last week, another federal judge ordered that the 819 hours said to contain "personal or private conversations" be returned to the Nixon estate, although some tapes deal with political matters, because Nixon was acting as his party's chief, not as president.

The Justice Department is considering an appeal, but meantime Nixon in death continues as he did in life providing an endless saga, not only through revelations on his tapes, but in the fight to keep them from the public domain.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover reports from the Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 4/23/97

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