Nixon Daughters Bury the Hatchet

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Have two sisters ever been closer than Tricia and Julie Nixon? Tied by bonds of family, forged by political fires, they endured as daughters of the only American President to resign; they smile or wave or cry together in a thousand pictures, standing by their father and each other. Each was maid of honor for the other. Tricia, 56, says she trusted her sister so much that when Julie was writing her highly praised book about their mother, Tricia turned over her diary. That closeness has been strained this spring, as a battle over how to spend a $19 million bequest from Nixon crony Bebe Rebozo turned into a nasty lawsuit pitting one sister against the other. The rift began in 1997 as Tricia and Julie argued over how the Richard Nixon presidential library should be run. Tricia's side wants a small board dominated by the sisters, funding for pro-Nixon scholars and the ouster of John Taylor, the library's longtime director, who was selected by Nixon himself. At one point in the mid-1990s, Julie agreed with Tricia that Taylor wasn't responsive enough to the family, but quickly changed her mind. Julie, 53, wants to keep Taylor and the existing large, independent board (24 members, including the sisters, Henry Kissinger and George Shultz). She says, "Families don't run real libraries; professionals do."

The argument might have remained all in the family had Rebozo — the chicken plucker and Pan Am steward who made a fortune in South Florida real estate — not left 65% of his $27 million estate to the library, with the proviso that it be used "in accordance with the specific directions of Julie Nixon Eisenhower [and] Tricia N. Cox." The lawsuit, which was filed at Julie's and Taylor's insistence, was necessary, says their attorney, Bob Landon, because until the sisters can agree on how Bebe's money is to be spent, it stays tied up in probate. Landon says Tricia is using this dispute "as a back door to try once again to get family control of the library." The suit tried — and failed — to oust Tricia from the board. Tricia's lawyer, Tom Malcolm, says Taylor's suit has "tarnished forever the image of a close, wholesome relationship and replaced it with a story of feuding and recrimination." Ken Khachigian, a library board member and former Nixon adviser, calls Taylor "oxygen on this fire. He's done what all the Nixon haters couldn't do — drive a wedge in the family."

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Ah, the poor Richard Nixon library — literally. Because the National Archives by court order still controls Nixon's papers, it is a stepchild among presidential libraries, the only one among the 12 that has to cobble together its $2 million operating budget each year (the others each get $5.5 million in federal funds annually). Although the Nixon library holds 200 seminars and ceremonies a year, Tricia's lawyer says it has become a "theme park," with its peddling of Nixon-and-Elvis T shirts and its use for proms, bar mitzvahs and weddings. "Impress your guests," one ad says, "by serving a state dinner prepared by a chef to five Presidents." A bride wanting that Rose Garden glow can Rent-A-Gazebo, the same one beneath which Tricia said, "I do," to Edward Cox, the New York lawyer who many think is behind Tricia's efforts.

After I began interviewing people on both sides of the dispute, the sisters realized they needed to change the story line. Julie called Thursday morning to say she had decided that the sisters' silence was hurting their father's memory, that she and Tricia had just talked on the phone at length, and that they would both talk to me. "We'd always pulled together before; we decided to do so again," Julie said, adding that she and Tricia had never stopped "sending gifts and cards on birthdays and holidays." Julie, the author of several works of history and mother of three, lives in Pennsylvania with her husband David Eisenhower, a fellow at the University of Pennsylvania. Tricia, who lives with Cox on Manhattan's East Side, has a son in law school and serves on many medical-research boards. She says what Julie didn't understand before was that Tricia couldn't turn Rebozo's money over to the library without control because she had given "a solemn promise to Bebe at a 1994 dinner at Manhattan's '21' restaurant to carry out his wishes, which Julie couldn't hear because she was across the table."

That promise is the root of the problem, but after hours on the phone with Julie, it's clear Tricia thinks there's been a breakthrough and that compromise is suddenly possible. They already agree on one goal. "I spoke to former President Gerald Ford on April 23," Julie says, "and once the Bebe money is dispersed, he'll make it his personal crusade to get the Nixon library into the federal system." On Friday Julie was changing her schedule around to be at Tricia's side for a literacy event whose host was First Lady Laura Bush on Monday evening in New York. "That will do more than anything I can say to put this behind us," Julie says. "A picture is worth a thousand words."