September 12, 2011; Source: New York Times | Nancy Reagan is a major player in the exhibits and programs of her late husband’s presidential library.  The Reagan library tends toward a lighter touch on the controversies that his administration blundered into, such as the Iran-Contra embroglio.  In contrast, the Nixon library veers in the other direction.  For example, its Watergate exhibit apparently raises the question we all had way back when, “What did the president know, and when did he know it?”

According to the New York Times, the warts-and-all approach of the Nixon library and museum doesn’t win plaudits from Nixon loyalists, some of whom have shunned the Watergate program, offered no financial support, and in the case of one museum docent, resigned.  In contrast to the Nixon library’s “what did the president know” tag, the Reagan library’s introductory film, financed and developed by the Reagan Foundation, tells its audience, “He fought for freedom; he set out to change the nation.” Both museums are run by the National Archives, after being built by supporters of each president.

The Reagan Foundation’s influence over the museum reflects both the extensive network of family, friends and contributors who are part of the foundation, which finances many of the museum’s activities, and Reagan’s enduring popularity. In general, presidential libraries are paeans to their namesakes (we don’t know about the James Buchanan and Franklin Pierce libraries, but presumably even those might unearth and extol some positive nuggets about their leadership and vision). 

But both the Nixon and Reagan libraries, while largely privately funded, are run by the National Archives.  As “public” institutions, even if capitalized by private donations, shouldn’t they have to hold to some standards of being accurate and balanced, no matter how avid the donors about the positive qualities of their honored presidents?  A professor at the University of Louisville and an expert on presidential libraries, Benjamin Hufbauer, told the Times, “They should be honest to history.  They are run by the National Archives. 

The Reagan library is better than it was before — it’s better than the clean whitewash it used to be, when it didn’t mention Iran-contra at all. But it tends to be a celebration of Reagan, a shrine.”

This isn’t the first time that presidential libraries have had to confront the thorny question of historical accuracy and balance, not just Nixon’s Watergate history, but the Truman library’s approach to the question of Truman’s decision to drop nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The head of the Truman library said it became easier to be open and accurate as Truman family members and friends began to die off, but he added, “The fatal continuing flaw are those private [presidential] foundations. They will tell you they are a great deal because of all the nonfederal money they are bringing in.

In my opinion, there are hidden and in some cases there are some odious strings that come with that money that keep the library directors, no matter how well intentioned they are, from developing certain exhibitions or programs.” Has anyone checked out the Harding presidential library’s treatment of the Teapot Dome scandal? –Rick Cohen