We are taking a look at past staff and their many contributions to the National Archives throughout history. Today we’re featuring Mary Walton McCandlish Livingston, who became famous for uncovering the backdated deed for Nixon’s pre-Presidential materials donation.
Mary Walton McCandlish was born in 1914 in Fairfax, Virginia. She attended high school at the National Cathedral School in Washington, DC, and went to Sweet Briar College, a private women’s college in Virginia. After graduation, Livingston worked for the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce before coming to the National Archives in 1937. She soon became a supervisor in the Division of Reference and then an assistant archivist for Labor Department Archives, where she helped compile the Preliminary Inventory of the War Labor Policies Board Records.
She married Schuyler William Livingston in 1939 and in 1941 began a 20-year hiatus from the National Archives. During that time, she had three children and worked on civil rights issues such as advocating for desegregation of Northern Virginia’s schools. In 1962 she returned to the National Archives to work in the Exhibits and Publications Division.
After she became an archivist in the Office of Presidential Libraries, she gained her archival notoriety for her work appraising some of Nixon’s pre-Presidential materials. Before the Presidential Records Act of 1978 mandated that Presidential and Vice Presidential papers were automatically federal property to be transferred to the National Archives at the end of the administration, Presidents and Vice Presidents owned their official papers. They could do what they wanted with their files, including donating them to public institutions in exchange for large tax breaks.
In 1969 Congress changed the tax law to prevent public officials from taking these tax breaks—the intent was that public officials shouldn’t be compensated for donating papers that shouldn’t be considered theirs to begin with. President Nixon signed the legislation himself, and if he intended on taking any final deductions, legal transfer of his materials had to be made in writing on or before July 25, 1969.
In March 1969, before law’s passage, the National Archives received a shipment of Nixon’s pre-Presidential papers. Nixon’s intent was to have an appraiser go through the material, decide what to donate, and determine the value. However, the appraiser, Ralph Newman, didn’t come to the National Archives until November that year. By that time it was too late to take the deduction. Newman, and Nixon’s lawyer, Frank DeMarco, however, prepared documents that said Nixon deeded the papers on March 27, 1969, ultimately giving Nixon a $450,000 tax break.
Livingston knew something was up, saying Newman could not have appraised the records in 1969, and in fact the deed included information she had not provided to Newman until 1970. She pressed for action, but nothing immediately came of it.
Three years later, when a newspaper story mentioned Nixon’s tax deductions, Livingston brought up the issue again. She subsequently gave a statement to the Joint Committee on Internal Revenue Taxation, which was looking at President Nixon’s tax returns, and provided additional evidence and testimony of wrongdoing. Congress ultimately ruled Nixon’s deductions were improper.
Livingston became an archival hero. A 1974 Washington Evening Star article called her “a woman of conscience who cannot be stampeded out of channels by the mention of the White House.” In 1976 she received a Commendable Service Award for “consistent high performance, professionalism and personal integrity” in administering Presidential papers and in helping launch the Public Documents Commission. In 1980 the Society of American Archivists gave Livingston an Exemplary Service Citation in recognition of her “courageous actions” related to the appraisal and donation of the Nixon materials.
While she is most known for holding Nixon accountable for his illegal tax deductions, she was also extremely proud of her work leading the National Archives efforts to verify the claims of Japanese-Americans who were incarcerated during World War II after the Special Counsel for the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians recommended reparations. In a letter from the Commission’s Special Counsel to Livingston, they thanked her and her staff for “unfailingly prompt and generous help which we received from you and other members of the staff.”
Staff members who knew Livingston remember her for her white gloves and hat, her extraordinary tennis playing abilities, and her unwavering commitment to the mission of the National Archives. She retired from the National Archives in 1993 while working on the Archival Allocation and Records Evaluation staff and passed away on March 23, 2007, in Alexandria, Virginia.
Read more about Mary Walton Livingston in former NARA staff member John Constance’s blog.