Duke Magazine
by Robert J. Bliwise
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Thirty years ago, a presidential library seemed destined for Duke. The ensuing debate said a lot about the character of the campus—and about emotions surrounding one of America’s most divisive leaders.

an unofficial architectural rending of Nixon museum
What might have been: an unofficial architectural rending of Nixon museum
University Archives

In the last Sunday in August 1981, The New York Times Week in Review section captured a controversy in its headline, “Nixon Library: Duke’s Dilemma.” According to the article, “If ever a man was without honor in his own alma mater, it’s Richard M. Nixon. Indeed, Duke University, whose law school class of 1937 included the President-to-be, seems to have made rebuking Mr. Nixon a habit.”

The very next day, the article noted, the faculty would debate “the proposed construction of Mr. Nixon’s Presidential library on the edge of campus. It promises to be some debate.”

And so it turned out to be. In the end, Duke lost the opportunity for—or the burden of—the library. That outcome was largely a consequence of lingering criticism of Nixon, the only U.S. President to have resigned his office, who by then had embarked on a sort of rehabilitation campaign. In particular, it reflected the work of a vocal group of professors; they resented being peripheral players in a process that, as they saw it, might have changed the physical— and intellectual—face of the campus.

Duke president Terry Sanford had long ago laid the groundwork for a deal. In April 1973, Sidney P. Marland Jr., assistant secretary for education in the Nixon administration, wrote to White House domestic-affairs counsel John Ehrlichman (who was later convicted of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and perjury in the Watergate scandal); Sanford was copied on the letter. “I had occasion to be at Duke University the weekend of March 9 to carry the flag for the Administration’s position on support for higher education,” the letter begins. “In the course of my visit, I learned from President Terry Sanford that
an invitation had been extended to offer Duke University as a site for the President’s Library.”

Marland went on to make the case for Duke, declaring that Nixon, as a Duke Law School graduate, is “esteemed” on campus, that Duke “occupies a very high position of prestige,” and that Durham represents “an easily accessible location.” Duke, he said, “is prepared to make appropriate commitments of property and other supporting conditions.” He closed the letter with a reminder of “an unfortunate incident” in which the faculty voted down an honorary degree—in 1954—for Nixon, then vice president. “A conversation with President Sanford would promptly resolve any misgivings on the subject,” he assured Ehrlichman.

Shortly thereafter—on May 21, 1973—Sanford wrote to Nixon with what reads like a firm offer: “I hope you will consider Duke University as the location for the Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library.” That was less than a year after five men were arrested for the Watergate break-in, an episode that eventually led to Nixon’s resignation from the presidency on August 8, 1974.

Sanford’s letter promised that Duke would set aside “necessary land for the Nixon Library in a satisfactory location on campus, perhaps, in the wooded areas adjacent to the Law School”; accommodate “visiting scholars for any kind of fellowship program that might be attached to the Nixon Library”; provide “full support, or provide cooperative efforts in the creation and operation of a related school or special studies program”; and “make our fund-raising offices available to the Presidential Library campaign.” He concluded, “I hope that this request communicates our pride in your relationship to Duke University, and the honor that your Presidential Library would bestow upon us.”

During the intervening time, there was no evident movement on the issue. Nixon largely disappeared from public view for a couple of years after his resignation. When it surfaced in 1981, then, the idea of the Nixon Library was hardly unfamiliar to Sanford—or to Nixon and his representatives.

Today, Nixon’s attorney, Stan Mortenson, says it’s likely that Sanford had reclaimed the initiative in 1981; at the time, Mortenson says, “my portfolio included the effort to figure out where the library was going to end up.” (He is now senior counsel for a Washington law firm, specializing in white-collar criminal defense and commercial litigation.) Mortenson visited the campus and was shown a possible site behind the law school. “Duke seemed to provide the perfect place,” he recalls. “On that first trip, I remember staying in the Duke guesthouse, and Terry Sanford had arranged a reception with a half-dozen or so faculty members and administrators. It was a very warm and welcoming reception. It came across to me that all those I met were quite serious and anxious to get the library.”

An additional unofficial architectural rendering of the Nixon museum
An additional unofficial architectural rendering of the Nixon museum University Archives

On August 8, 1981, Sanford wrote to the executive committee of the board of trustees suggesting that the Nixon Library, with its papers, tapes, and memorabilia, would be “a real coup for Duke” and would be “similar to the LBJ Library at Austin and the Truman Library at Independence.” A Nixon Library Foundation, spearheaded by well-positioned people such as publisher Walter Annenberg (Nixon’s ambassador to Great Britain), would raise the needed $25 million. Thirty years later, Eugene McDonald, at the time the university counsel and the chief negotiator with Mortenson, calls Sanford “the ultimate pragmatist.” According to McDonald, Sanford saw the library as “an enormous win for Duke,” certainly in terms of adding a major resource for presidential scholars. At the beginning, he says, Sanford envisioned a presidential archives site—and just a presidential archives site. As it turned out, his modest vision was very different from Nixon’s. From the university’s side, “the idea was initiated as something less than and separate from the concept of a museum,” McDonald says. “It was initially discussed and projected and put forward as a library primarily for academic research purposes.”

Soon, though, “it became clear in discussions with Nixon’s representatives that Nixon would be very demanding and very tough in his views of what would be acceptable to him. He was prepared to take a hard line on things he considered important.” From Nixon’s side, any proposal from Duke that would diminish a library and associated museum, says McDonald, “would have difficulty gaining traction.”

Mortenson largely agrees with that assessment. “All the other presidential libraries had a museum component,” he says. “There was a great deal of Nixon memorabilia that would be of more interest to the general public than just a research library. So it probably was on our side of the agenda that we needed to have both.” The showing of gifts to Presidents from foreign travels, in particular, is “always a big attraction” for the public, he says.