HOTSEAT- Naftali's Nixon: Nonpartisan with a cause
Timothy Naftali is checking out mood music for the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum– the Fifth Dimension, Pearl Bailey, the Carpenters, and Duke Ellington all played at the White House during the Nixon presidency.
For the man recently named to head the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, California, the new job won't be about just tapes and presidential papers. Naftali doesn't believe you can know Nixon without knowing the era in which he lived, and he's thinking about ways to incorporate culture, music, even sports into the library experience.
"Presidential libraries have witnessed a drop-off in the number of visitors," explains Naftali. "We need to update how we interact with people."
This historian is also a marketer, and he already has his target audience: tech-savvy 12-year-olds who know nothing about Richard M. Nixon, and baby boomers nostalgic about their high school era.
A bigger challenge than increasing visitors and housing 44 million papers is the legacy of Nixon himself. For once, Naftali, an outspoken expert on Cold War presidents, has written little on the only U.S. president to resign from office.
"I don't have a dog in this fight," he stresses. "My goal is to make Yorba Linda a national facility. What matters is history, love him or hate him."
Naftali traces his passion for history to his grandfather, who survived the Holocaust and moved his family from Romania to Montreal in 1948. "He was self-taught, he loved history, and he tried to make sense of the life he lived," Naftali says.
And so the grandson tried to make sense of the life he led growing up in the midst of the turbulent separatist movement as a minority English family in Montreal.
"I never compare my experience to minorities in the U.S.," says Naftali, "because there were no lynchings in Canada. I got to see social revolution that went the wrong way.... It certainly shaped my life. It left me with an intense dislike of partisanship. I have seen such nastiness. I don't like political parties."
His life also was shaped as an undergrad at Yale, when he crossed paths with a professor who once headed the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor to the CIA. Naftali delved into the world of counterespionage, and eventually became a professor at Yale, teaching "Espionage and
International Relations in the Twentieth Century."
Last year he published Blind Spot: The Secret History of American Counterterrorism, which the New Republic called the "back story" to the 9/11 Commission Report.
In between writing books– a 600-page manuscript of his newest, Krushchev's Cold War, sits on his desk– Naftali directs the Miller Center's presidential recordings program. And still he writes hard-hitting op-eds in such publications as Slate and the Wall Street Journal. He's been known to slam the current administration's war on terrorism. "I'm outspoken," he says, "and I don't intend to change."
But there's fact, and there's opinion, and he's careful to distinguish between the two: "Everyone is entitled to their own history– they're not entitled to their own facts."
And, he advises, "To understand any piece of history, you have to understand the historian."
Naftali intends to continue writing books while turning the Yorba Linda library into a bigger spot on the map. "I'm privileged to be in a position to shape how people ask questions about Nixon," he says.
And always, always, he maintains, "History matters."
Why here? In 1998, Philip Zelikow, the incoming director of the Miller Center, brought me to UVA.
What's worst about living here? The drive to DC is 40 miles too long.
Favorite hangout? This depends on my mood and the time of day. I like to start the day at Caf Milano, have dinner at Bizou, and end the day at Escaf.
Most overrated virtue? Jefferson
People would be surprised to know: I goof off a lot.
What would you change about yourself? My ears. In no other respect am I related to the Windsors.
Proudest accomplishment? Helping my mother start her new life after my dad died relatively young.
People find most annoying about you: I think that occasionally I can seem inconsiderate. But maybe other things, too.
Whom do you admire? Remember, Im a historian. The questions tough because we end up knowing too much about human flaws. In sum, I most admire people, famous and unknown, who test their personal limits and pick themselves up when things dont necessarily go their way. I also like people who mix metaphors with abandon.
Favorite book? [Not written by you: I added that.] Too many to mention.
Pick one: Duff Coopers biography of Talleyrand. Pick a second: Nabokovs Pale Fire.
Subject that causes you to rant? The George W. Bush administration
Biggest 21st-century thrill? Internet dating
Biggest 21st-century creep out? Internet dating
What do you drive? BMW
In your car CD player right now: I have an iPod: Aretha Franklin, Vanessa Carlton , Gwen Stefani, Wilco, the Beatles, and Cher.
Next journey? L.A.
Most trouble youve ever gotten in? [Deleted by the subject]
Regret: No time for regrets.
Favorite comfort food: Rotisserie chicken
Always in your refrigerator: White Bordeaux
Must-see TV: Project Runway [It changes each year. Last year it was Arrested Development].
Favorite cartoon: Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law
Describe a perfect day: Late brunch, museum/gallery/zoo, work out, fine dining, late brunch. And the day must be sunny, as well as the company.
Walter Mitty fantasy: Winning an Oscar
Whod play you in the movie? Ha. Even thinking about answering that question undermines my self-delusion.
Most embarrassing moment? I'm not very good at remembering peoples names, so these happen all the time.
Best advice you ever got? Listen.
Favorite bumper sticker? A certain political party for Voldemort
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO