Richard Nixon Library Gets Watergate Overhaul: 'Let the Historical Chips Fall Where They May'

Library director vows to "let the historical chips fall where they may."

YORBA LINDA, Calif., March 31, 2011 — -- It's billed as Richard Nixon, warts and all -- with no more sugarcoating of the Watergate scandal that cost Nixon his presidency.

The Richard Nixon Library here has unveiled what it says is a vastly expanded and more balanced Watergate exhibit, one that library director Tim Naftali said will "let the historical chips fall where they may."

"The public deserves non-partisan history for its taxpayer money," Naftali said of the exhibits, run by the National Archives since coming under federal control in 2007. "When you come to the library, you'll see a commitment to honesty and transparency."

The once-privately owned library came under fire after the Richard Nixon Foundation opened it in 1990 and displayed what some historians denounced as a swayed view of Nixon's presidency. The part of the library on the Watergate scandal had paltry documentation and portrayed mostly Nixon's perspective of the story, including a view of Watergate as a "coup" by Nixon's rivals.

But the new $500,000 makeover unveiled today brings new presidential papers to the forefront and adds oral histories by 131 historical figures, many involved with the Watergate scandal that led to Nixon's resignation on Aug. 8, 1974.

Visitors can see burglar tools allegedly used to break into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel complex and a listening device tied to the scandal.

They can hear the editing clicks on audiotape where 18 1/2 minutes of White House recordings possibly pertinent to a Watergate cover-up infamously got erased.

The library now has 40 hours of interactive content on display that Naftali calls "iPad history." Clicking on a display called "dirty tricks," visitors can listen to Nixon ordering Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., investigated.

In short, the new permanent exhibit aims to be historically accurate and not to spin history in Nixon's favor.

"I didn't have to compromise my training as a historian," Naftali said.

The oral histories include accounts by figures such as G. Gordon Liddy, one of the Watergate burglars, as well as John Ehrlichman and Charles Colson, Nixon aides who went to prison over the scandal.

Richard Nixon Library Overhaul Dissenter: 'This Is His Place. He's Buried Here.'

Not everyone agrees with the overhaul.

Nixon White House aide Bruce Herschensohn told The Associated Press that Nixon's point of view should have remained in place at the 37th president's library, of all places.

"I can only come to the conclusion it [the federally revamped exhibit] will probably be a hit piece," he said. "This is the Nixon library. This is his place. He's buried there ... and so is Mrs. Nixon."

Presidential Documents Preserved and Destroyed

There is a deep-rooted history in "presidential papers" -- documents created during each U.S. president's term.

Many blamed the Nixon Library's original misrepresentation of the Watergate scandal on the fact that Nixon's presidential documents were being held by the National Archives under federal law, with many of the documents classified.

In 1974, after the Watergate story broke, Congress passed the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act to keep Nixon from obtaining and destroying his presidential papers.

Nixon sued for his Fifth Amendment rights, but to no avail. He was the first president who did not have private rights to his presidential papers.

However, 2004 legislation released all of Nixon's presidential papers held at the National Archives and allowed them to be moved to the Nixon Library.

As of last July, all of the documents were released and available for research at the library -- and following the $500,000 remodeling project, new and important documents and recordings pertinent to the Watergate story are on display.

Up until Nixon's presidency, every other president had the right to remove all of their presidential papers from the White House for their personal ownership.

According to a Federal Court of Appeals document outlining the history of the presidential papers, many presidents in the past have destroyed documents from their presidency.

President Andrew Johnson took his papers from the White House and passed them down to his family, which then sold them to the Library of Congress for $7,500.

President Chester Arthur's presidential papers were a mystery until his grandson wrote the chief of the Library of Congress' Manuscript Division, telling him that President Arthur had burned three large garbage cans full of papers "which I am sure would have thrown much light on history."

President James Garfield had many of his presidential papers destroyed related to his being struck by an assassin's bullet. He died two months later.

After Garfield's death, his children gave the remaining papers to the Library of Congress.

Kennedy Documents' Conditions

President Kennedy never was able to make arrangements for the disposal or storage of his presidential papers before he was assassinated.

Kennedy's documents were shipped to the National Archives to be displayed in his future library, according to Susan Cooper, a spokeswoman for the National Archives.

The conditions, according to court records in President Nixon's bid to reclaim his own presidential documents, were that Kennedy's representatives, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Edward Kennedy, reserved the right to limit access or withhold any materials they chose.

In 1978, Congress passed the Presidential Records Act, which got rid of the private ownership of presidential papers. The outgoing president, Jimmy Carter was free to dispose of his presidential papers, but gave all of them to the National Archives.

President Ronald Reagan and all following presidents have been subject to this act.

Besides the Nixon Library, the National Archives now oversees 12 other presidential libraries.

ABC News' Michael S. James and The Associated Press contributed to this report.