The Nixon Library That Wasn't

Thirty years ago, a presidential library seemed destined for Duke. The ensuing debate said a lot about the character of the campus—and about emotions surrounding one of America’s most divisive leaders.


In the last Sunday in August 1981, The New York Times Week in Review section captured a controversy in its headline, “Nixon Library: Duke’s Dilemma.” According to the article, “If ever a man was without honor in his own alma mater, it’s Richard M. Nixon. Indeed, Duke University, whose law school class of 1937 included the President-to-be, seems to have made rebuking Mr. Nixon a habit.”

The very next day, the article noted, the faculty would debate “the proposed construction of Mr. Nixon’s Presidential library on the edge of campus. It promises to be some debate.”

And so it turned out to be. In the end, Duke lost the opportunity for—or the burden of—the library. That outcome was largely a consequence of lingering criticism of Nixon, the only U.S. President to have resigned his office, who by then had embarked on a sort of rehabilitation campaign. In particular, it reflected the work of a vocal group of professors; they resented being peripheral players in a process that, as they saw it, might have changed the physical— and intellectual—face of the campus.

Duke president Terry Sanford had long ago laid the groundwork for a deal. In April 1973, Sidney P. Marland Jr., assistant secretary for education in the Nixon administration, wrote to White House domestic-affairs counsel John Ehrlichman (who was later convicted of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and perjury in the Watergate scandal); Sanford was copied on the letter. “I had occasion to be at Duke University the weekend of March 9 to carry the flag for the Administration’s position on support for higher education,” the letter begins. “In the course of my visit, I learned from President Terry Sanford that
an invitation had been extended to offer Duke University as a site for the President’s Library.”

Marland went on to make the case for Duke, declaring that Nixon, as a Duke Law School graduate, is “esteemed” on campus, that Duke “occupies a very high position of prestige,” and that Durham represents “an easily accessible location.” Duke, he said, “is prepared to make appropriate commitments of property and other supporting conditions.” He closed the letter with a reminder of “an unfortunate incident” in which the faculty voted down an honorary degree—in 1954—for Nixon, then vice president. “A conversation with President Sanford would promptly resolve any misgivings on the subject,” he assured Ehrlichman.

Shortly thereafter—on May 21, 1973—Sanford wrote to Nixon with what reads like a firm offer: “I hope you will consider Duke University as the location for the Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library.” That was less than a year after five men were arrested for the Watergate break-in, an episode that eventually led to Nixon’s resignation from the presidency on August 8, 1974.

Sanford’s letter promised that Duke would set aside “necessary land for the Nixon Library in a satisfactory location on campus, perhaps, in the wooded areas adjacent to the Law School”; accommodate “visiting scholars for any kind of fellowship program that might be attached to the Nixon Library”; provide “full support, or provide cooperative efforts in the creation and operation of a related school or special studies program”; and “make our fund-raising offices available to the Presidential Library campaign.” He concluded, “I hope that this request communicates our pride in your relationship to Duke University, and the honor that your Presidential Library would bestow upon us.”

During the intervening time, there was no evident movement on the issue. Nixon largely disappeared from public view for a couple of years after his resignation. When it surfaced in 1981, then, the idea of the Nixon Library was hardly unfamiliar to Sanford—or to Nixon and his representatives.

Today, Nixon’s attorney, Stan Mortenson, says it’s likely that Sanford had reclaimed the initiative in 1981; at the time, Mortenson says, “my portfolio included the effort to figure out where the library was going to end up.” (He is now senior counsel for a Washington law firm, specializing in white-collar criminal defense and commercial litigation.) Mortenson visited the campus and was shown a possible site behind the law school. “Duke seemed to provide the perfect place,” he recalls. “On that first trip, I remember staying in the Duke guesthouse, and Terry Sanford had arranged a reception with a half-dozen or so faculty members and administrators. It was a very warm and welcoming reception. It came across to me that all those I met were quite serious and anxious to get the library.”

An additional unofficial architectural rendering of the Nixon museum


An additional unofficial architectural rendering of the Nixon museum University Archives


On August 8, 1981, Sanford wrote to the executive committee of the board of trustees suggesting that the Nixon Library, with its papers, tapes, and memorabilia, would be “a real coup for Duke” and would be “similar to the LBJ Library at Austin and the Truman Library at Independence.” A Nixon Library Foundation, spearheaded by well-positioned people such as publisher Walter Annenberg (Nixon’s ambassador to Great Britain), would raise the needed $25 million. Thirty years later, Eugene McDonald, at the time the university counsel and the chief negotiator with Mortenson, calls Sanford “the ultimate pragmatist.” According to McDonald, Sanford saw the library as “an enormous win for Duke,” certainly in terms of adding a major resource for presidential scholars. At the beginning, he says, Sanford envisioned a presidential archives site—and just a presidential archives site. As it turned out, his modest vision was very different from Nixon’s. From the university’s side, “the idea was initiated as something less than and separate from the concept of a museum,” McDonald says. “It was initially discussed and projected and put forward as a library primarily for academic research purposes.”

Soon, though, “it became clear in discussions with Nixon’s representatives that Nixon would be very demanding and very tough in his views of what would be acceptable to him. He was prepared to take a hard line on things he considered important.” From Nixon’s side, any proposal from Duke that would diminish a library and associated museum, says McDonald, “would have difficulty gaining traction.”

Mortenson largely agrees with that assessment. “All the other presidential libraries had a museum component,” he says. “There was a great deal of Nixon memorabilia that would be of more interest to the general public than just a research library. So it probably was on our side of the agenda that we needed to have both.” The showing of gifts to Presidents from foreign travels, in particular, is “always a big attraction” for the public, he says.

Devilish humor: (from top to bottom) cartoon in Raleigh's News & Observer, August 1982; a Washington (N.C.) Daily News cartoon in September 1981 alludes to Watergate; Nixon looms large in Greensboro Daily News cartoon, October 1981.


Devilish humor: (from top to bottom) cartoon in Raleigh's News & Observer, August 1982; a Washington (N.C.) Daily News cartoon in September 1981 alludes to Watergate; Nixon looms large in Greensboro Daily News cartoon, October 1981. University Archives


Sanford initially plowed ahead without reservation. In an August 10, 1981, memorandum, he asked his chief communicator, Bill Green, to consider a media game plan. Sanford preferred an announcement in New York, maybe at the Metropolitan Club, where Nixon had a membership. But, he asked Green, if Duke were the announcement site instead, “do we want to have some kind of reception or assembly for the entire faculty and the press, probably in Cameron Indoor Stadium?”

That same day, Sanford had Craufurd Goodwin Ph.D. ’58, dean of the Graduate School, meet with the thirteen members of the history department who were in town. A few days later, Sanford convened the same group for his own session. The meetings didn’t go particularly well.

Acting department chair Richard Watson—who years earlier had campaigned successfully against the honorary degree for Nixon—later wrote to Sanford of his distress. “I find it difficult to agree that we were properly consulted,” he said, given revelations that Sanford had “negotiated on one or more occasions with the Nixon lawyer on this campus, selected a site for the library, and prepared a contract scheduled for signature on August 19th.”

Today, Goodwin, an economist who has written a couple of books based on material in the Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson presidential libraries, says he wasn’t prepared for the intensity of the reaction. “I was a complete political innocent. When I took the idea to the history department, they pretty much threw rotten vegetables at me.” The critics had some legitimate concerns, he acknowledges in retrospect. “Anybody who has worked in presidential libraries knows that there’s kind of a museum that’s attached to the library. And for the first generation after the President’s death, that can be a slight embarrassment, because the family has a sort of control over it. So you hold your nose for twenty years, and then it goes away.

“But some people made that a big thing—Pat Nixon’s cloth coat would become the symbol of the university, huge traffic jams would be created by the hordes of people coming to see it. It became an absurd controversy.”

Goodwin says the vehemence of the opposition from the history department reflected shifting intellectual currents: Traditional areas like intellectual history and diplomatic history, which might rely on the archives of important personalities, were being de-emphasized. On the rise, instead, was social history and its variants: oral history, civil rights history, women’s history.

One of Duke’s pioneering social historians, William Chafe, agrees with Goodwin’s analysis—to a point. Social history was indeed becoming a Duke hallmark. “Social history means looking at the ways in which, from the bottom up, people change the agenda of the country,” he says. “That implies a reluctance to defer to power from the top down. And in some respects—although we didn’t make this particular linkage at the time—the way in which Terry tried to make this thing happen was an example of power from the top down, with no real consultation or consideration.”

Chafe recalls gathering with his history colleagues right after the session with Sanford. They resolved there—in the driveway of Sanford’s house, a few blocks off campus—to fight the idea. “We were not neophytes at mobilizing an opposition,” Chafe says. He himself had run Congressional primary campaigns in New York, done media work for a New York mayoral campaign, and written speeches for a senatorial campaign. He and his colleagues drew on connections at newspapers around the country to make a campus issue a wider public issue; their strategy, as Chafe puts it, was to be both “shrewd and substantive” in opposing the library. In his view, the library as initially imagined “essentially would have become a dominant presence that would have totally reshaped the study of public policy at Duke, totally reshaped political science, totally reshaped history, and in effect would have made the Nixon presence the most salient feature of the university.”

Physics professor Lawrence Evans, the outgoing chair of the Academic Council, Duke’s faculty senate, said he and the council’s executive committee made it clear to Sanford that the August 19 deadline was unacceptable; it was weeks before the full faculty would make its return for the fall semester. Sanford agreed to put off any decision. With the new school year,the Academic Council held two meetings in quick succession: one an open faculty forum, and the other a regular meeting of the council. The first, on August 31, Evans recalls, was particularly tense. One of his strongest memories is of Watson, the history professor, shaking with anger as he grasped his notes.

Eventually, the council—by then under new chair Roy Weintraub, an economics professor—voted thirty-five to thirty-four in favor of a resolution calling on the board of trustees not to proceed with negotiations. The council was saved from a tie vote by Peter Burian of classical studies. Burian had come down with a severe case of appendicitis while visiting his brother and his family outside Philadelphia. That visit coincided with a strike by Philadelphia’s teachers—which turned out to be an important detail. With the impending start of the fall semester, he had already arranged for a substitute instructor and committed himself to a period of bed rest. Then he got a call from Sydney Nathans, a history professor and library opponent. Nathans had just finished an analysis of the presidential library system showing, among other things, that researchers represented less than 1 percent of all visitors to the libraries and that the “monumental or memorial aspects” tended to dominate.

“Syd, as a careful scholar, had done his homework, meaning he had done a headcount of the Academic Council,” Burian recalls. “He knew my vote was needed.” So, from what he said felt like his “deathbed,” Burian got himself into a Datsun (“one of the cheapest, worst cars ever made, with broken springs”) and was driven by a suddenly available driver—a striking teacher—from Philadelphia to Durham. He arrived at the BioSci building’s auditorium for the Academic Council meeting, just in time to cast the deciding vote.

Had the vote been tied, Burian acknowledges, the trustees could have bypassed faculty opinion. As it happened, the trustee executive committee decided to proceed with negotiations for the library, in spite of the Academic Council’s no vote. Board chair J. Alexander McMahon ’42 told reporters that the Nixon Library was “practically an accomplished fact.” As The Chronicle put it in a news analysis, “Indeed, McMahon and the faculty seem to have been talking right past each other in discussing [negotiating] conditions.”

According to Burian, faculty members saw their authority—even though, with such matters, it was less a matter of official authority than of academic etiquette—“directly and severely challenged. They rose up in more or less open revolt, saying, ‘You can’t just dismiss a faculty vote, even if it is a close vote.’ In fact, they were trying to overturn a faculty majority.” It seemed that “the trustees had decided the faculty was incompetent to make a judgment about an issue so intimately wrapped up with the nature of the academic program and the future of the university,” he says. “A lot of people who didn’t care much about the issue or thought maybe it was a good idea on the whole nevertheless protested this way of shunting the faculty aside.”

A teach-in in mid-September drew about 250 students. They heard from seven faculty members, most of whom opposed not just the library but also Sanford’s methods of pursuing it. At least one faculty member, Peter Klopfer in zoology, talked about starting a petition drive for Sanford’s resignation. Others speculated about nefarious reasons for Sanford’s advocacy: Sanford was a director of ITT, a conglomerate that owned the Sheraton chain, which was contemplating locating a hotel and civic center in Durham—where, by some estimates, a Nixon Library would draw 500,000 visitors annually.

The Durham Herald-Sun published a thoroughly unofficial Nixon Library architectural rendering, which from a current perspective has the character of an architectural fantasy—a modern-day ziggurat described as a “combination Aztec temple and Hanging Gardens of Babylon.” Within the structure’s 358,000 square feet, the top floor, some 6,400 square feet, would be devoted to living quarters for the former President and his family. There’s no evidence that it was seen as a serious plan, even by Nixon partisans. (It was the vision of a participant in one of Durham’s residential crash-diet programs.) But at the time, it was taken as another warning that Duke would be awarding Nixon a grandiose presence on campus.

Sanford, a former North Carolina governor who was often described as the consummate politician, may have misread the campus. The Academic Council’s Lawrence Evans, who was part of the small group that met informally with Nixon attorney Stan Mortenson, recalls a telling exchange from that early gathering: “At some point, Mortenson turns to me and says, ‘So, you’re the chairman of the faculty senate. What will the faculty say about this?’ Terry, who’s right there, says, ‘Well, if they turn it down, they’ll be damn fools.’ And Mortenson just laughs.”

The day of the year’s first Academic Council meeting, Sanford sent a handwritten note to Chancellor Kenneth Pye, who was essentially Sanford’s chief operating officer. He told Pye, “I am going to have to ride out the storm” and called the controversy “a matter of principle that I cannot abandon, even if it means a presidential search committee must be organized this summer.”

The prospect of the Nixon Library didn’t engage the student body to the extent that it agitated the faculty. Still, in its earliest editorial on the issue, The Chronicle said, “We can in no way justify, no matter how valuable the papers and tapes may be, the erection of a memorial to a crook.” The Association of Graduate Students in Political Science petitioned Sanford to “urge the board of trustees to refuse” the library, noting “the liability of being linked with Nixon for time immemorial.”A group of law students collected six pages of signatures voicing “strong opposition” to the proposal.

Recalls Scott McCartney ’82, “For us, it was a little bit of a throwback to the 1960s and ’70s, where you had major campus issues and power-struggle showdowns between the faculty and the administration.” McCartney covered the controversy as a stringer for Raleigh’s News & Observer. “The whole thing was incredibly fascinating, because there were significant issues for the university. Ultimately, it was really a question of who’s in charge at Duke.”

Demonstrating dissent: Opponents of Nixon Library line the quad on West Campus in the fall of 1981.


Demonstrating dissent: Opponents of Nixon Library line the quad on West Campus in the fall of 1981.
University Archives


In mid-September, the board of directors of Duke’s alumni association passed a resolution supporting Sanford and the trustees—though the board didn’t vote specifically on whether the library should be built at Duke. But alumni support was hardly universal. One of Duke’s most famous graduates (other than Nixon), novelist William Styron ’47, wrote in a public statement, “To establish any connection, no matter how informal or tenuous, with the works of a man who brought such disgrace to this high office would be a smear on the image of the institution we all cherish and respect.” More succinctly, one alumna, writing to Sanford, advised, “I think that the Nixon papers should go to Sing Sing. He didn’t go there, but that’s where his papers and tapes should go.”

The faculty opposition found an outlet in newspaper op-ed columns. The New York Times published an opinion—an assertion of traditional faculty authority combined with a presidential and legal history lesson—by Duke historian Anne Firor Scott, who had succeeded Richard Watson as department chair. In outlining the contentiousness on Duke’s campus, she referred to “a shared concern about the implications of a decision-making process that could lead to the negotiation of such a controversial agreement with only perfunctory consultation with faculty, students, or alumni.”

Nixon, upon leaving office, had negotiated an agreement with the General Services Administration that allowed him to control access to his papers, Scott wrote. The agreement also stipulated that the Oval Office tapes would be destroyed at the time of his death or in 1984, whichever came first. A perturbed Congress then passed a law giving total control of the Nixon material to the G.S.A.; Nixon in turn challenged the constitutionality of that law but lost in the Supreme Court, where the majority found that his effort to destroy material made him “a legitimate class of one.” (As an embattled President, Nixon had fought the release of the tapes, which ultimately implicated him in the Watergate cover-up and forced his resignation; the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that claims of executive privilege over the tapes were void.)

Scott also observed, “From all this it appeared that even if Mr. Nixon were to gain control of the documents…his approach to scholarship would hardly be hospitable.” Presidential libraries, she added, had functioned less as scholarly resources than as “museums for the glorification of a man.”

In The News & Observer, an opinion by Duke political scientist James David Barber—who, according to Evans and others, initially had no strong objections to the library—referred dismissively to the prospect of “taking on a vast building complex, a blatantly propagandistic program, a permanent relationship to the Nixon family, and a vast tangle of problems yet to emerge.” Calling himself “one potential user of a Nixon archive,” Barber, a scholar of presidential character, wrote, “I say it’s broccoli and I say to hell with it. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life at this place correcting the record regarding Nixon.”

There was a more judicious tone in a Chronicle column by a Duke law professor, Donald Horowitz—who had worked in Nixon’s Department of Justice and had conducted extensive research using archives. He wrote that he would consider the Nixon library “at best, a modest convenience, not the grand gold mine people who have never sweated in an archive think it is bound to be,” and warned of “the reputational impact of Duke’s lending its good name to Nixon’s bad name.”

History professor Chafe, in his own Chronicle commentary, referred to “a sense of betrayal, and, finally, anger” on campus. Later, in the Durham Morning Herald, Sanford was asked if he had read Chafe’s commentary. He said, “I made it a point when I was governor never to listen to Jesse Helms [then a television commentator politically opposed to Sanford], and now I don’t read articles by Bill Chafe.” Chafe says Sanford eventually apologized for that comparison.

Other faculty members came across as strong-minded if not like-minded in private correspondence with Sanford. “Is Duke University so impoverished of real merit that it must grab kudos at any price?” asked a zoology professor. “Do we need another public-relations albatross around our neck?” Cultivating his own analogy, a botany professor wrote Sanford, “If the Devil kept a file of correspondence and it was possible to acquire it, I would favor the acquisition, because it would be very interesting.”

In October, the Academic Council voted unanimously, fifty-two to zero, to reject consideration of a Nixon museum and recommended limiting the library to a relatively modest 55,000 square feet. Sanford had begun “a process of climbing down” from supporting the original idea, says Roy Weintraub, then the Academic Council chair. The next day, Sanford endorsed the resolution. By that point, “nobody on the faculty, even those who wanted the archives, wanted what they called the tourist trap,” Weintraub says. “You couldn’t make that case.”

In early March 1982, University Counsel McDonald told The Chronicle, “On instruction and advice, I made clear two essential points: that any Duke proposal would encompass an archives alone, and that the responsibility of funding [would lie] exclusively with Mr. Nixon and his supporters.”

L. Neil Williams ’58, J.D. ’61, a trustee member of the committee appointed to negotiate that Duke proposal, recalls, “It was clear to the so-called negotiating committee, to the board, to President Sanford, and to everybody who was looking at it that this was just not right for Duke. So the ultimate resolution of the matter was that Duke continued to say, ‘We would welcome the archival material. But we’re not interested in a museum for Richard Nixon.’ ”

Photos of Nixon in law school and during his resignation


Portraits of a life: (left) Nixon, top row, far right, and his 1937 law school class; (right) Facing impeachment, Nixon resigns on August 8, 1974.
(left) University Archives/ (right) JP Laffont/Sygma/Corbis


Today, McDonald says the process that led to that shared stance changed Sanford as well as the university. “Around this time, the whole question of faculty governance, which had been percolating at a low-heat level for some time at Duke and other institutions, was just beginning to generate a stronger measure of focus.” Sanford’s governing style had been “less participatory and more along the lines of a CEO,” he says. “He had appreciation for the concept of faculty governance, but I don’t think he understood it all that well.”

That verdict was echoed in an ad-hoc faculty committee, which reported that “the handling of the Nixon Library issue was not a model of what a consultative process should be.” Not only was the process conducted in “a crisis atmosphere,” according to the report, “but, at least initially, a final expression of Faculty views was requested on the basis of a most fragmentary description of what will be, if it ever comes to fruition, a most complex project.”

“If you look at the bylaws, the faculty has only one power at this university. One and only one,” says Weintraub. “The faculty grants degrees. That’s the only thing the faculty is chartered to do. When the faculty seeks a role in governance, it has to be a respectful, cooperative venture. And that’s what we were trying to work for. You couldn’t argue about a breakdown in process. It happened. And everybody was a little bit embarrassed by that.

“I wanted to make sure that there were institutions in place that would make it difficult for that to ever happen again,” he adds. “And that meant more regular connection with the trustees, more regular connection with the president.”

To Williams, who would chair the board of trustees from 1983 to 1988, the episode pointed to better ways of doing business at Duke. “If I did contribute something during my years as board chair, perhaps it was changing the conversation between the faculty leadership and the members of the board. It became a more regular, more supportive, more open, and less tense dialogue.”

After the last Academic Council vote, any dialogue with Nixon or his representatives pretty much dissipated. Media accounts mentioned a couple of other possible presidential-library sites, notably San Clemente. They all fell away, until an obscure but perhaps obvious contender emerged. Nixon would come home—and not to his law-school home.

The Nixon Presidential Library and Birthplace in Yorba Linda, California, opened in July 1990. The opening was attended by then-President George H.W. Bush, along with former Presidents Reagan and Ford. Until 2007, Nixon’s was the only privately maintained presidential library—overseen by the Nixon Foundation, which is generally described as a group of Nixon loyalists. (It’s now fully integrated into the presidential-library system administered by the National Archives.)

In 2005, library officials created a furor by canceling a conference on President Nixon and the Vietnam War; the conference would have been the first event on the site to include historians critical of Nixon’s legacy. This spring, the library unveiled a revamped Watergate Gallery, replacing a display that, as the Los Angeles Times put it, was a “perfunctory, much-ridiculed narrative of Watergate that Nixon himself approved.” The display now includes oral histories, the White House tapes, and media coverage from the era, all centering on familiar but fraught themes: abuse of power, dirty tricks and political espionage, the cover-up, the investigations, the legal fight over the tapes, and why Watergate matters.

The archivist of the U.S., David Ferriero, opened the new Watergate Gallery and cited the “tangled events” that converged to create Watergate. “Tangled events” could have been an apt description of the Nixon Library and Duke University, where, for eight years, Ferriero was university librarian. If Nixon had a sense of irony, one could imagine his having a good laugh at the notion that the ultimate authority over his presidential library is someone with a strong attachment to Duke.


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