Nixon's Ghost

THIS YEAR MARKS the 25th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, and while Richard Nixon may be dead and buried, his ghost is very much with us. The suffix "--gate" has become a universal journalistic marker of public scandal, and has burgeoned of late as a result of the Clinton administration's serial coverups and corruptions. With headlines shouting of Travel-, File-, China-, and other unappetizing "--gates," even in Israel, Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu's attempt to name a pliant attorney general who would dismiss bribery charges against the head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party (without whose support the government would fall) has been dubbed "Bibigate."

Now the Clinton administration is about to reach a settlement with the family of the Great Criminal of Whittier over the Nixon archives, one that could involve the destruction of 3,700 hours of Nixon Oval Office tapes and/or a proposed $26 million payment to the Nixon family. Either outcome would be iniquitous.

The trouble began in May 1995, when Clinton, instead of naming a scholar to head the National Archives (as every preceding president had done), turned the post into a patronage plum, giving it to a conservative former Democratic governor of Kansas, John Carlin, a Clinton pal from the Democratic Leadership Council. At the time, the appointment was protested by historians of all political persuasions.

Following his boss's lead--remember the nauseating elegy Clinton delivered at the Great Criminal's funeral?--Carlin has bent over backwards to accommodate Nixon's ghost. The dead president's lawyers have been fighting tooth and nail against release of the Nixon papers and tapes for a quarter of a century. Indeed, the Nixon family and a list of Nixon cronies headed by Henry Kissinger have virtual veto power over each piece of paper or tape mentioning their names under a series of rulings by previous Republican administrations.

Last month, a federal judge ordered the National Archives to return to the Nixon estate "all personal and private conversations" on hitherto unreleased Nixon tapes and "all copies thereof," as well as a 27,000-page log summarizing them. Carlin claims original tapes are "too fragile" to be spliced and edited to remove personal material. The solution, of course, is disarmingly simple: Copy the tapes, edit the copies, and return the edited outtakes of the "personal" material and the originals to the Nixon estate. But rather than opt for this easy answer, and appeal to a higher court, Carlin is determined to reach an out-of-court settlement with the Nixon lawyers.

A $26 million price tag has been attached to the unreleased material, but according to the Washington Post, the Nixon estate's appraisals "have included a number of questionable estimates, including a $24 million valuation for some 14,000 photo contact sheets and more than $500,000 for a collection of petitions, letters, telegrams, unused stationery, and multiple copies of a Nixon speech on Vietnam." Further, most states have laws that forbid criminals from profiting from their crimes--for example, Sammy "the Bull" Gravano will not be allowed to touch a penny from the recent publication of his memoirs--and allowing post-mortem Nixonian cupidity to raffle millions from the public treasury is equivalent to rewarding the greatest Constitution-shredder in the history of the presidency.

The Nixon archives episode is but one example of what appears to be a Clinton administration policy of limiting access to material of both historical and current political interest. Responses to requests under the Freedom of Information Act have slowed to a trickle under Clinton ("budget cuts" is the excuse). And historians led by Blanche Wiesen Cook, the prize-winning biographer of Eleanor Roosevelt, have been protesting reclassification of previously declassified documents by the CIA, the FBI, and the State Department that relate to foreign policy and the domestic Cold War.

One cannot help suspecting that Clinton has an eye on the future of his own presidential papers--how he might profit from them and control them to ensure a favorable verdict from history on his tainted reign. That's why precedent-setting decisions about the Nixon tapes and papers should be taken out of the hands of political hack Carlin and given to a panel of distinguished scholars.

For, as Orwell said in 1984, he who controls the past controls the future.

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