Drinks With ...

Tim Naftali

Nixon's Improbable Minder


Basix Café
8333 Santa Monica Boulevard
West Hollywood, C.A.

The Tab

(4) glasses of M5 Rhone varietal
$46.00 + tip
Naftali's Tip for the Road: The 5 to the 101 works beautifully at this hour.

So we’re sipping glasses of red wine (Margerum “M5” Rhone Blend) late on a recent school night at West Hollywood’s Basix, one of those bistro-ish cafes that exude an understated and casual hipness, the type of place where it’s hard to tell if you’re sharing your heat lamp with a table of successful screenwriters or struggling realtors – or struggling screenwriters turned successful realtors.

My conversation with Timothy Naftali turns to a presidential word-association game:  JFK? Ironic pragmatist. LBJ?  Overbearing New Dealer. Richard Nixon? Naftali grins broadly, as if to say “nice try.”

“That I can’t do,” he demurs.

If some professional association offered up a “most courageous U.S. librarian award,” Naftali would surely be a contender. He was the man brought in by the National Archives in 2007 to impose objectivity and transparency on the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum down in Yorba Linda, presiding over an uneasy truce between the federal government and the private Nixon Foundation that allowed for the 37th president’s archives to be transferred to California, and for Nixon’s museum/birthplace/burial ground to enter the fraternity of federally-administered presidential libraries. Taking over from Nixon apologists who incessantly portrayed Nixon as a victim of left-wing conspirators, Naftali’s role can be compared to that of an ambassador to a hostile nation, if not a military governor in an occupied land. Think Paul Bremer minus the boots and the delusion that cheering crowds would welcome him. Or, to pick a more auspicious analogy, Douglas MacArthur in Tokyo.

Both at his current job and in his previous perch at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center for Public Affairs, Naftali, a Cold War historian, has spent years listening in on the troika of American presidents – Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon – whose talents, neuroses and life stories encapsulated the American Century, and who had the courtesy to secretly tape history in the making at the White House. Strangely, with the Oval Office’s taping system long dismantled, we’ll never know presidents Obama and Bush as well as we can get to know Nixon.   No investigative journalism or tell-all books can replace that feeling of listening in, literally.

Naftali is a wiry Canadian native who exudes nervous, creative and ultimately contagious,energy. He has a knack for imparting more compelling historical knowledge per minute than you might be able to absorb – our conversation leaps fitfully but coherently from Khrushchev’s “puffer fish” persona to the CIA response to 9/11 and America’s inability to dismiss threats or put them in proper context, “because there’s always a domestic faction that seizes upon to discredit whomever is in charge.” Naftali is like that friend of yours who can’t wait to tell you all about that amazing movie he just saw, with all its unexpected plot twists.

Until he gets to the Nixon scenes, that is. He slows down when discussing “his” president. Nixon’s legacy is “complex,” Naftali allows, suddenly measured, explaining that his role is to be an honest broker, respectful of those who want to focus on negative or positive aspects of the only president to resign the office. That is what he tells his staff of Old Believer volunteers, Nixon die-hards who haven’t exactly welcomed the arrival of glasnost to Orange County.

Glasnost’s Exhibit A is the library’s Watergate exhibit, which opened this spring. It’s a masterful multimedia presentation of the entire saga, placing the scandal in a broader context of the times and of the Nixon White House’s self-destructive paranoia. Watergate, in the Nixon Library’s expansive interpretation, doesn’t begin with the botched burglary at the Democratic offices in the building whose name would bequeath the “-gate” ending to all subsequent American scandals. No, the exhibit curated by Naftali links the break-in and subsequent cover-up to the earlier campaign to discredit Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg, the White House’s pathetic yearning to break into the Brookings Institution’s safe and Richard Nixon’s ugly obsession with Jews in the federal government. (Listen here to the president exhorting his inner circle to find non-Jews to control those “disloyal” Jews at the Labor Department).

It goes without saying that this new Watergate exhibit – which proceeds to convey the drama through a series of oral histories and White House recordings that you navigate via an interface akin to that of an iPad – is a far cry from the museum’s former take on the scandal: “Watergate: The Final Campaign.” The contextual backdrop offered up by the pre-glasnost gallery wasn’t the president’s paranoia and desire to lash out at real and imagined enemies, but the unrelenting efforts of those who “sought to reverse the stunning mandate he [Nixon] had received from voters on November 7, 1972.” Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, according to that old exhibit (which is preserved on the library’s site), breached all sorts of ethical and legal norms in reporting the story for The Washington Post.

For Naftali, pulling punches on Watergate was not an option, as much as he talks of a need for healing and recognizes the delicate challenge of fulfilling a national purpose from a local institution surrounded by boosters for the hometown boy-turned-president. The bottom line: “If a President is involved in demonstrably troublesome activities, national amnesia about these activities will only encourage future presidents to do the same. History doesn’t repeat itself, but human nature does.”

All presidential libraries are strange hybrids – serious public research centers run by the National Archives but fronted by propagandistic shrines to the president and his time, typically underwritten by private foundations established by the man being remembered or his cronies. As a result of the long-running litigation over control of Nixon’s papers and the 3,700 hours of recordings that Naftali is still in the process of releasing to the public, the Nixon museum is now held to a higher standard of objectivity than any other such presidential facility. “Tricky Dick” can’t catch a break.

“One of the things we set out to do with the Watergate exhibit,” Naftali explains, “was to eliminate any concerns that future researchers might have about the integrity of the archives.” He wants the tens of thousands of students who come through the museum each year to take away an appreciation for the Constitution as a central protagonist in our national life, a self-enforcing contract that protects all our rights, even against an overreaching president.

Naftali has the nuanced appreciation for America’s power and exceptionalism that comes from having been outside looking in, having grown up in Quebec. Eventually, though, once established professionally in the United States, he decided to become a naturalized citizen. “I kept having trouble with pronouns – you, we, us – and I was tired of being the outsider,” he explains, “particularly when I was here, caring about elections, absorbed in studying U.S. foreign policy and its impact on the world.”

As he talks about this imperative, the institution’s “civic literacy” mission, Naftali’s speech accelerates again, despite the fact that we’re still in Nixonland. And it’s then that I am struck by the delicious irony that Naftali would probably make the former president’s enemies list if he were keeping one in the afterlife. Grounds for inclusion? Naftali recently invited Bob Woodward to speak at the library. He is from Montreal. He studied at Yale. He lives in West Hollywood. And, get this, the director of the Nixon library is writing a book about the Kennedy presidency. Ouch.

Naftali, who is 49, squirms when I try lingering on the improbability of him being the curator of the Nixon legacy, but concedes he might be a “suspect messenger for an uncomfortable message.” Hence the Watergate exhibit’s heavy reliance on oral histories, particularly damning reminiscences of Republican heavies such as Trent Lott, George Schultz, Alexander Haig and William Saffire.

Nixon is a uniquely complicated president and polarizing figure, but the need to balance remembrance and historical scrutiny is a complicated juggling act for all presidential libraries. Plenty of hyper-partisan Americans these days question the legitimacy of any opposing party’s president, but for the still-significant number of old-school Americans (call them the “silent majority”) more prone to making pilgrimages to museums, the presidency is a national symbol, up there with the bald eagle and flag. It strikes many of them as bad form, if not unpatriotic, to be too critical of a former head of state, especially one who has passed away. Naftali’s job as a public historian would be a lot easier if more people fell somewhere in between, eager to assess our leaders with an eye towards learning from their mistakes, but doing so respectfully.

“If you have a .350 batting average, you’re an amazing baseball player, but presidents are expected to have a 1.000 batting average,” Naftali says of the unrealistic expectations we place on our leaders.

One thing I find most refreshing about Naftali – something even Nixon would have appreciated – is that he is not one of those tiresome intellectual expats forced to do time in California while constantly pining for life back east. On the contrary, one reason he took what he knew would be a tough gig was that he loves the freedom and energy of Los Angeles, and even its geography. “I like villages embedded in cities,” Naftali says, adding that he appreciates the richness of each micro culture’s distinct identity. He raves about the city’s food too, and makes a plug – no disrespect for his Basix standby – for Lucques on Melrose.

Naftali is even bullish on driving, and the challenge of “gaming the system” in choosing his routes – “the 5 to the 101 works beautifully at this hour,” he says, as if describing the Rhone varietal he is savoring. Naftali’s daily commute adds up to 90 miles roundtrip, though the trek from the office in Yorba Linda – set in a time capsule from a tumultuous era that includes Richard Nixon’s grave – to the chill vibe of West Hollywood must feel in some ways like intergalactic travel; necessary and therapeutic intergalactic travel at the end of each day.

Andrés Martinez is Editorial Director of Zócalo Public Square and Director of the Bernard L. Schwartz Fellows Program at the New America Foundation.

*Smartphone photo by Andrés Martinez.