With Trump as President, the Nixon Presidential Library Grasps at Redemption

Richard Nixon
President Richard Nixon, with first lady Pat Nixon and daughter Tricia Nixon, says goodbye to family and staff in the White House East Room on August 9, 1974. Reuters

The Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum (@NixonLibrary) sent out a tweet Tuesday.

The @NixonLibrary frequently posts tweets, but this one drew more eyeballs than usual—because of its content and because of its timing. Here is the tweet:

Do you get it? It's a very presidential subtweet. The Nixon Presidential Library is gloriously subtweeting Donald Trump. The tweet was posted just a few hours after news emerged that the president had fired the FBI director, who was in charge of investigating the president. In other words, the museum devoted to Nixon's life and presidential legacy lunged at the opportunity to make Nixon seem stable and wholesome by comparison. (To be fair, Trump seems to make a lot of past leaders seem stable by comparison.)

It is also pushing back at critics who are quick to compare Trump to Nixon. Because, well, Trump did a Bad Thing and Nixon did not do this particular Bad Thing.

The tweet is technically accurate—Bill Clinton is the only previous president to have fired an FBI director—but it is selective and arguably misleading in its handling of history. Trump's actions have raised the specter of Watergate not because Nixon dismissed the director of the FBI (he didn't), but because Nixon fired the special prosecutor investigating the White House's ties to the Watergate cover-up (yes, he did).

In this way, Trump's obstruction of justice is distinctly Nixonian, despite what the #NotNixonian hashtag claims.

Plus, historians and pundits frequently evoke Nixon because there is no other former president with such a seeming penchant for paranoia and corruption.  "Mr. Trump’s decision late Tuesday afternoon drew instant comparisons to the 'Saturday Night Massacre' in October 1973, when President Richard M. Nixon ordered the firing of Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor looking into the so-called third-rate burglary that would eventually bring Nixon down," The New York Times observed.

Every recent U.S. president, however disgraced or embattered, has his own presidential library, and Nixon is no exception. But Nixon's library, established at the site of the president's birthplace in Yorba Linda, California, has had the unique challenge of dealing with the stain of the Watergate scandal and the 37th president's subsequent resignation, and its instinct has often been to try to whitewash or rehabilitate Nixon's image.

The museum's original Watergate exhibition was designed by the Nixon Foundation (whose members remained loyal to the former president) and depicted the scandal that toppled Nixon's presidency as one largely orchestrated or exaggerated by the Democrats.

In early 2011, the exhibition was overhauled, in order to present a more objective account of Nixon's wrongdoings. From a Times story at the time:

The unveiling ended a nearly yearlong struggle between national archivists and the Richard Nixon Foundation, a group of Nixon loyalists who controlled the former president’s papers until ceding them to the National Archives four years ago. The fight was over how to portray the scandal that led to Nixon’s resignation.

From the first words a visitor sees entering the gallery — a quotation from Nixon, “This is a conspiracy” — the exhibit offers a searing and often unforgiving account of one of the most painful chapters of the nation’s history.

That exhibition remains in place today, though the remainder of the museum is fairly generous to the former president, emphasizing his lesser-discussed accomplishments, like the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). (When I visited the museum in 2011, a docent told me Nixon was unfairly blamed for Watergate and said, "People thought of him as a crook, but I don't think anything he did was really crooked.") 

Trump's surreal presidency has provided an opportunity for plenty of historical establishments to throw shade or "drop knowledge" or whatever. The Anne Frank Center, for instance, slams Trump seemingly every week. It is a profoundly strange time.

Related: Understanding Donald Trump's weird obsession with Andrew Jackson

But Nixon is the rare historical villain who stands to benefit reputationally from Trump's misdeeds. And if Trump is eventually removed from office (as some predict), it could make Nixon's exit look positively amicable.

I reached out to the Nixon Library for comment, but I received nothing more than a form email in response. Better than 18½ minutes of silence, I suppose.