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New Exhibit Lifts Lid on Watergate Cover-up

The gift shop at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library & Museum, run by stalwart supporters of the 37th president, sells a mug that asks “What Would Nixon Do?” It has been joined recently at the Yorba Linda, Calif., facility by a Watergate exhibit, put together by the National Archives, that asks what did Nixon do?

Timothy Naftali, director of the library/museum since it came under Archives control in 2007, says that one of his goals in curating the exhibit was “to have a credible discussion and depiction of abuses of governmental power, and there was no way to sugar-coat that.” The evidence he drew upon includes more than 130 recent oral histories. A sound bite in the exhibit from Alexander Haig, for example, recalls the moment when as Nixon’s chief of staff he turned down the president’s request to destroy tape recordings of White House conversations.

Nixon loyalists—who raised $23 million to open the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace in 1990 and operated it until 2007— were not happy to see their Watergate exhibit (posted at exhibits/oldwatergatetour.php) replaced. The Richard Nixon Foundation submitted a 158-page “response” (viewable at to an early draft of the text of the new show, criticizing everything from facts to themes to word choices. Very few of those suggestions were adopted.

When the exhibit opened, foundation chairman Ronald H. Walker called it “one interpretation” of events, and his wife, Anne Walker, wrote in a foundation blog that “I am sure that Dr. Naftali really believes that President Nixon did every single bad thing that has ever been suggested.” A more positive response came from John H. Taylor, Nixon’s chief of staff in the late 1980s and the executive director of the foundation up to 2009. “The old exhibit was polemical, and I say that as someone who helped to create it,” says Taylor, now a priest at an Episcopal church about 30 miles from Yorba Linda. “I think that Dr. Naftali, as a distinguished Cold War historian and a relentless empiricist, has done the job that he was asked to do—not only by the foundation when I was there but by two Archivists of the United States— a thorough but objective job.”

Walt Whitman’s Day-Job Scribbles Deciphered

A trove of Walt Whitman’s writing discovered at the National Archives is a far cry from his intimate-yet-epic poetry. The nearly 3,000 documents contain writing, re-writing and transcribing done by the poet/essayist/journalist as a federal employee. University of Nebraska-Lincoln literature professor Kenneth Price has studied Whitman extensively—he is co-director of the online Walt Whitman Archive (, where the texts will be posted later this year)—and could identify anonymous documents by Whitman’s handwriting. Price says important thematic connections can already be made, even though Whitman was often writing on behalf of others: “In his poetry he begins, more and more, to write from the perspective of others. He’s not just writing as Walt Whitman. He’s adopting the point of view of somebody else.”

Penn State Students Solve Mason-Dixon Line Puzzle

Every line begins with a point, but in the case of the line created by astronomer Charles Mason and astronomer/surveyor Jeremiah Dixon in the 1760s, no one knew where the men got started. Documentation was incomplete on their plotting, intended to settle a land dispute between the Penns of Pennsylvania and the Calverts of Maryland—well before the line became a way of demarcating North from South. A lecturer at Penn State University’s Abington campus, Janine Black, launched a trio of students into archives in Philadelphia. One of them, Amanda Veloz, found a mention of the property in an insurance survey. And another, Indiah Fortune, found a deed that had been incorrectly indexed in city records. It turns out that the point in question is now occupied by northbound lanes of Interstate 95.

Sideshows Landmarked

The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission has given its protection to a building in Coney Island where sideshow performers have swallowed fire and walked on broken glass, among other sensationalistic acts. Home to a community-arts organization called Coney Island USA, the 1917 building is decorated with lurid murals that depict some of the featured performers.

Washington’s Masonic Apron Shrouded in Mystery

Martha Washington could have saved 21st-century curators a lot of work if she had only sewn her husband’s name into his Masonic aprons. Recently, Mount Vernon displayed an apron from Mt. Nebo Lodge No. 91, Ancient Free & Accepted Masons, in Shepherdstown, W.Va., which many experts believe was sold at Martha’s estate sale in 1802 for $6 to Thomas Hammond, husband of a Washington niece. Hammond joined Mt. Nebo in 1815, and lodge history says he donated the apron, although there is no documentation for this. (A Hammond descendant recently brought another apron to the Smithsonian, but extensive analysis proved it was made after Washington’s death.) While the Mt. Nebo apron traveled to at least five ceremonies around the country in the 19th century, it then was returned to Shepherdstown. Says Mark Tabbert, director of collections at the George Washington Masonic National Memorial in Alexandria, Va.: “The lodge in West Virginia just got quiet, and nobody promoted the apron, and it was forgotten.”

Rebel Pride Figures in Civil War Casualty Recount

Not only can history be rewritten, it can be recalculated. The states of North Carolina and Virginia have been digging through records to get a more accurate count of how many of their citizens died in the Civil War. The official figure established in 1866 was 40,275 dead from North Carolina—the most of any Confederate state and a point of pride—but the revised total will be closer to 31,000, says Josh Howard of the North Carolina Office of Archives & History. At the same time, the Virginia revision will be dramatically higher, from the 1866 total of 14,794 to “the neighborhood of 29 or 30,000,” says Edwin Ray, who works at the Library of Virginia. Many Tar Heels worry that they will lose face via the new math. “We’ve had some initial pushback,” says Howard, “but we don’t care who lost the most. We care about accuracy.”

Chestnuts Make a Comeback

The chestnut may have come full circle with the recent delivery of seedlings to New York City. That is where the blight that decimated the great American tree was discovered in 1904, and it is hoped that trees grown from these crossbred nuts will withstand the fungus that wiped out virtually all of the 4 billion trees that were a source of food, lumber and tannins, mostly along the Appalachians. “People thought the world was literally coming to an end,” says Donald Edward Davis, author of Where There Are Mountains: An Environmental History of the Southern Appalachians. “The chestnut gave them their identity, and they depended upon it.”

Iwo Jima Map Restored

A World War II intelligence map of Iwo Jima makes the island look downright pretty, belying the savage fighting that claimed the lives of 6,812 Americans and about 18,000 Japanese over the course of 36 days in 1945. The map was recently restored and returned to the USS North Carolina, now moored in Wilmington, N.C.


Originally published in the August 2011 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here