Historian Tim Naftali is the former director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum and is the author of a forthcoming book on the Kennedy presidency. Before talking with author Jeffrey Frank about Nixon’s legacy, he explained in the Zócalo green room that he’s not a former librarian—but that there are some advantages to being a former library director, one of which just might be that he no longer has to answer crazy questions about the Nixon White House tapes.
How do you react when you’re embarrassed?
I stutter a bit—and turn red.
What’s the strangest question you’ve ever been asked about Richard Nixon?
I was asked if as director of the library I was able to create the White House tapes in Washington—I was asked if we could actually manipulate them and make Nixon seem worse in the tapes than he actually was. I think that was the strangest question I got as director.
What book have you read the most times?
I’m not the kind of person who rereads books. I watch movies over and over again, but I don’t reread books. I could say the books I have reread most were the Asterix books. I read them in French; it’s a Belgian comic.
What’s your guilty pleasure?
Only one? This is going on the Web … Butter tarts.
What teacher or professor, if any, changed your life?
Teachers made a really big difference in my life, and to some extent my love of teaching comes from the benefits—the joys—I experienced because of my teachers as a kid. So I would start with Mr. Teasdale, grades five and six, who was a part-time broadcaster for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He introduced me to history and also how to bring history to life. He also taught me how to speak—he was really interested in extemporaneous speaking, and I started speaking and debating a little with him. And then I would say Robin Winks, who was my adviser at Yale, who taught me how a historian can be a detective.
What’s the best thing about being an ex-librarian?
I’m not a librarian. I ran something called a library, but it was really a combination archive and museum, with public programming. But what’s the best thing about being the former director of the Nixon Library? Although I never really submitted to much message discipline in the job, I now can fully share my opinion, and that’s a joy.
How do you like your coffee?
Black. Double espresso. There are a number of coffee shops in L.A. that know me pretty well. In fact, I’m the kind of person who not only wants it black, but wants it in a ceramic cup. When I go into the Starbucks down the street—I live in West Hollywood—they bring out the ceramic cup. It makes a difference.
What’s your favorite Cold War film?
The Manchurian Candidate. It’s tough, but that’s my favorite.
If George Washington came back from the dead and you had to show him America today, where is the first place you would take him?
I think the thing to do would be to take him to Wall Street. Because if I’m not mistaken, that’s where he became president. I’d take him to where the World Trade Center was and tell him what happened there, then I’d take him uptown. I’d show him 42nd Street, the Upper West Side, and the Upper East Side. And of course I’d take him to Columbia and up to Harlem. And then if we’d timed this right, I’d take him to a baseball game. I forgot to mention Chelsea, gotta include Chelsea—and Chinatown. But the point is, I’d try to show the president how diverse the country had become, its remarkable architectural achievements, some of the pain of its history, some of its technological advances. But also that it still had a sense of whimsy and a sense therefore of fun. Somebody who wore wooden teeth had to have had a sense of whimsy.
What word or phrase do you use most often?
I think “fab.”