HARVARD WAS NOT Richard Nixon's favorite university, and universities were not his favorite places. In those memorable electronic chronicles of his presidency, the White House tapes, Nixon frequently denounced places of higher education and lamented their interference in his plans for the nation. So even as he fades--slowly--from the public eye, it is perhaps fitting that this latest controversy should be on the subject of a university and Richard Nixon's place in it.
The ex-president has had some trouble persuading any large institution to become the repository for his official papers. He has finally settled on Duke University, his law school alma mater (class of '36), but a number of professors, alumni and students have objected to Duke's willingness to accept the trove. They say the library will commemorate a criminal, a liar, a charlatan and a man who disgraced his country. This may be true, but given the right circumstances, Nixon's opponents should reevaluate their crusade and welcome the papers to the Durham, N.C., campus.
Duke should demand unconditional control of the records and refuse to build a monument to the disgraced former president. Nixon deserves no museum and no shrine--and certainly no opening ceremonies celebrating his legacy. But no one should underestimate the importance and value of his presidential papers. Nixon, for better or (more likely) for worse, was a major political figure of the 20th century and his presidency remains an important factor in all our lives. Historians, journalists and interested citizens of the present and future will find his papers invaluable for understanding the use and abuse of power. We can learn from the post-mortem how better to treat the disease.
But if Duke does indeed turn Nixon down, we propose that Harvard offer to take his papers. Nixon probably wouldn't go for it; he is after all, the man who once told H.R. Haldeman, regarding prospective cabinet appointments, "No goddamn Harvard men, you understand? Under no condition!" But perhaps Nixon will let bygones be bygones and start addressing the boxes for Cambridge. Harvard could do its part by promising to clear some room for Nixon in Houghton Library--perhaps near Leon Trotsky's papers. But even if Nixon chooses to look elsewhere, Harvard could, by asking for the papers, display some of the qualities Nixon so demonstrably lacked: magnanimity, tolerance, and sense of humor. No, Nixon probably won't give his papers to Harvard, but wherever they go, they should be wanted and studied. With hope, we will never have another Nixon, but in the years to come we should know everything we can about the one we had.
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