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Published: Monday, 4/4/2011

Nixon, revised

For most of its 21 years, the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, Calif., rivaled nearby Disneyland as a purveyor of fantasy.

Within the library's walls, the resignation of the nation's 37th president was presented as the outcome of a conspiracy among unscrupulous political enemies and an unethical press corps.

The library sanitized references to the Watergate scandal. It packaged the criminal disregard for the Constitution that drove Mr. Nixon and his henchmen from office in a way that no legitimate historian would recognize.

But now that a $500,000 interactive exhibit has replaced the previous Watergate narrative that Mr. Nixon personally approved before the library opened, things have changed.

Timothy Naftali, the Harvard-trained director of the Nixon presidential library, resisted the army of loyalists who sought to blunt the exhibit's fidelity to inconvenient truths and messy facts. An example of the exhibit's honesty is the way it describes a historic touchstone: the famous 18½-minute gap on the tape recording that destroyed the Nixon presidency. The library no longer suggests that the president's secretary accidentally erased it.

That may not sound like a big deal. But the library's inability to deal with such facts made it more a temple of propaganda than a reputable presidential library. Mr. Naftali should be congratulated for overseeing an honest accounting of the Watergate years that will enhance the Nixon Library's reputation.

Richard Nixon may have had a complicated relationship with the truth. But at least the library erected in his honor is now telling the truth about one of America's most fascinating presidents.

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