If you visited the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, Calif., before this week--as I did years back--then you found Richard Nixon's most popular legacy, the Watergate exhibit, relegated to a few dark corridors. It was difficult to learn much about the roles of Nixon aide and ex-Seattle attorney John Ehrlichman, or the White House plumbers headed by another Seattle attorney Egil (Bud) Krogh Jr. (best remembered for bringing Elvis to the White House). Watergate, despite destroying Nixon, was treated as a joke. But no more.
Where the old exhibit featured a heavily edited version of the "smoking gun" tape that sealed Nixon's resignation in 1974, the new exhibit presents it in full. Where the old text contended that a "mechanical malfunction" explained the infamous 18 1/2-minute gap in a key Nixon conversation, visitors will now be told it was probably a deliberate erasure. And where the old text portrayed the scandal as a "coup" engineered by Nixon's enemies, the new narrative places the Watergate burglary within a broader pattern of dirty tricks, spying, and sabotage by the Nixon White House.
As I noted after my visit, former Mariners owner and Orange County businessman George Argyros and other Republican faithful, including computer mogul and former Boeing board member David Packard, helped create the 52,000-square-foot memorial to the president who was not a crook. But Watergate was close to an afterthought among the official letters, papers, photos, and Nixon memorabilia--including his six-door 1967 Lincoln Continental limousine, at $500,000 the most expensive car ever built, due to its necessarily excessive armor plating.
Also on display was a letter sent by the Seattle son of Krogh. It wished Nixon well when he was ailing in 1994. Young Krogh mentioned that his father had just published a book about the day Elvis came to the White House and exchanged gifts--a badge for Elvis, a .45 for Nixon. It's unclear if Nixon ever saw the Krogh book. He died a few days after the note arrived.
His funeral was endlessly replayed on a TV monitor above the display case with Krogh's letter. The Nixon death certificate from the Vander-Platt Funeral Home was also posted nearby, signed and dated. It was affirmation for those who needed, or relished, it.