Nixon Library Hires Director with No Library Experience

Monday, January 12, 2015
Mike Ellzey

It took three years for the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and the family of former President Richard Nixon to agree on a director for his official library in Yorba Linda, California, and, to the dismay of library historians and archivists, he is not one of them.


Ten of the other 12 presidential libraries are headed by archivists or historians. Mike Ellzey’s last job was as the Irvine assistant city manager overseeing development of controversial Orange County Great Park. Financial mismanagement at the former Marine Corps Air Station El Toro site has been the subject of two audits. Before that, he was executive director of the Golden Gate Concourse Authority for six years.


His new job starts today. “I certainly have a lot to learn,” he told the Orange County Register.


Apparently so. Anthony Clark, author of the soon-to-be-published book The Last Campaign: How Presidents Rewrite History, Run for Posterity and Enshrine Their Legacies, about presidential libraries, told the newspaper: “To have appointed someone with no experience or training as an archivist or a historian creates serious questions as to how the Nixon library will fulfill its duties.… To have chosen a director without such credentials but apparently with the strong support of the private Nixon Foundation is very troubling and raises additional concerns.”


Ellzey’s predecessor was an archivist and at the center of a dispute over how President Richard Nixon’s legacy should be presented. Timothy Naftali, a Canadian-American historian and now director of the Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Archives at New York University, left in 2011 after repeated clashes between the family and academics working there.


He was the first Nixon Library director after the Richard Nixon Foundation joined the National Archives presidential system in 2007. The foundation opened the museum in 1990, but was loath to cede any authority over its operation. It was the only presidential library not part of the system. The deal moved substantial archives to the museum and augmented its lightweight, less-than-fair-and-balanced presentation of the Nixon presidency. 


Much of the library and museum maintains a cheerful, laudatory atmosphere until one checks in on the Watergate Exhibit. Naftali presented an in-depth, historically accurate depiction of the days leading up to the only presidential resignation in history, with a retrospective look at why it was important.


The exhibit was not a family favorite. Some members boycotted its opening in 2011 and Naftali left shortly afterward.


A hyperlink to the seven-section compilation of material—“Conspiracy Thinking,” “Dirty Tricks and Political Espionage,” “The Coverup,” “Investigations,” “The Fight over the Tapes,” “A View from San Clemente” and “Why Watergate Mattered”—is nestled at the bottom of the library’s homepage, beneath illustrated links to “Nixon Family Holiday Traditions at the White House 1969-1973” and an art contest.   


Before Ellzey was selected, the National Archives proposed historian Mark Atwood Lawrence, an associate professor of history at the University of Texas in Austin, for the post. The family objected to the author’s treatment of Nixon’s role in the Vietnam War in his book, The Vietnam War: A Concise International History.


If it was an over-the-top Nixon-bashing book, that wasn’t evident from the reviews. Of 10 snippets compiled by Oxford Press, none of them mentions Nixon. But one of them, from C.C. Lovett at CHOICE, points out, “This brief summary of the tangled negotiations that prolonged the suffering caused by the war is perhaps Lawrence's most valuable contribution, since it covers an area that more extensive histories overlook.”


That wouldn’t do, and after months of behind-the-scenes maneuvering, Lawrence removed himself from consideration.


Now that a new director has been selected, the library can get going on a long overdue $25-million renovation of the exhibits. Perhaps the new director will take a cue from George W. Bush’s presidential library in Dallas, where visitors can play an interactive game called “Decision Points Theater,” featuring long video appearances by Bush to explain the correctness of his policies.  


The Vietnam exhibit is expected to get a major overhaul.

-Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Nixon Library Chief Greeted with Relief, Dismay (by Martin Wisckol, Orange County Register)

The Nixon Library Needs a New Director, Now (by Jon Wiener, The Nation)

At Nixon Library, Tension over How to Portray a Disgraced President (by Tim Reid, Reuters)

Archivist of the United States Appoints Director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum (National Archives)


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