Driving down a freeway somewhere in Orange County with some of the family members I had come to visit, I saw a sign. "This many miles to Yorba Linda."
"Yorba Linda," I said. "That's where the Nixon Library is." I didn't actually suggest seeing it, per se, just pointed out the fact in passing to be braggy about trivia.
"Is that someplace you'd like to go?" my cousin immediately asked.
"Uh, okay, sure," I replied. "I'm always interested in history. Nixon should be interesting."
Rehabilitating a Monster
The late Richard Nixon, who resigned from the U.S. presidency 35 years ago on Saturday, is a character in two movies I've seen this year. One is the alternate history superhero epic Watchmen, the other is the eponymous Frost/Nixon. Nixon, I would say, remains the most iconic, certainly the most lampooned of all former presidents. Slumped shoulders, fleshy jowls, narrow protruding nose, and uptight disposition -- when people talk about Nixon it's usually as the punch-line to a joke.
The Nixon I was introduced to growing up always was more caricature than human being, a surly Droopy Dog. I recall one Simpsons Halloween episode where he was included among history's greatest villains, beside Blackbeard and John Wilkes Booth, hand-picked by the devil himself to sit on the Jury of the Damned. "But I'm not dead yet," Nixon protested. "Hey listen, I did a favour for you," the Devil replied.
Yet Canadians of my generation know very little about the man. We are much too young to actually remember seeing him on television. We do not study American history in secondary school. We might catch a snippet about his policies, or his pets, on CNN. We rely on The Simpsons and films like Watchmen, and perhaps the occasional episode of Murphy Brown (if it's still in re-runs somewhere) to give us a cursory understanding of Watergate -- just enough to know it was criminal and that he resigned as a result -- and to supply us with a few buzz words and references: Deep Throat, enemies lists, "I am not a crook."
As well, we have our images of Nixon as a tragic figure, almost Shakespearean, perhaps a Richard III type to Lyndon Johnson's King Lear. This is "Unfortunate Nixon" in our line of collectable, posable Nixon action figures: the sweaty, rusty foil to John Kennedy's relaxed charm; the brilliant mind who was brought down by his own insecurities, hoisted on his own petard.
You won't find the scheming, shady, swarthy Nixon on the grounds of his Library and Birthplace. This is Richard Nixonland, after all, and in Nixonland all misfortunes are viewed as trials of spirit, which he, in the face of adversity, repeatedly overcomes in triumph.
"Only if you have been in the deepest valley, can you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain." This quotation is on everything at the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace. Not to say it's a bad thing, though I'd likely have bought a t-shirt at the gift shop were this not scribbled on the back. The entire facility is obviously a tribute to the man, but more importantly it's an attempt to add polish to an image that has over time been repeatedly kicked around.
The Extreme Makeover of Richard Nixon begins at the very beginning. The admission ticket has a picture of Nixon bowling -- albeit with his shirt tucked in -- coloured in fluorescent pastels, reminiscent of '80s era MTV stingers or Warhol silkscreen portraits, This is "Culturally Hip Nixon."
As with any reputable theme park, Nixonland has its attractions. There's an actual section of the Berlin Wall, a scale replica of the White House East Room, and a few others. The most notable is the former Marine One helicopter that escorted Nixon from the Whitehouse on his final day as President, making the famous double-handed peace sign salute on the steps before taking off.
As we approached the aircraft, we were met by one of the few volunteer docents that tend the facility, all very, very nice, all decked in white and navy blue with red neckerchiefs.
We were allowed to board the copter provided we abstained from picture taking, as it's still property of the Marine Corps, who forbid it. It was smaller and more austere than I expected, not at all the Presidential chariot to the skies I imagined, more of a flying mini-van. Inside and out it's in pristine conditions, a time-capsule from the 1960s, like an episode of Mad Men, ashtrays on every armrest, complete with U.S. government-brand cigarettes stamped with the Presidential seal -- only the very best for the First Lungs.
"Do a lot of people do the peace sign when they take pictures?" I asked the docent.
"Oh they all do," she replied.
I considered how cliché-tourist I would look, but thought to myself, "I'm at the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda. I'm going to take a picture in front of the Nixon helicopter giving the two-handed peace sign." Really it would be an insult not to. Like refusing Mickey ears at Disneyland (and no one should be too cool for Mickey ears).
The other main attraction is the house where Nixon was born and spent his first nine years. It was built by his father's hand from a mail-order do-it-yourself catalogue kit on the family citrus farm. Just outside the house are the grave plaques, the final resting spots, of Richard and Pat Nixon, side-by-side in a small grassy space amongst the flowers. "She was older than him," I said, having read the epigraphs. "I did not know that. So he was that kind of guy."
It's always been a thrill of mine to experience history by proxy, through seeing things people owned and being in places where things happened. Nearly everything in the Nixon home was authentic: from the actual bed and Quaker friendship quilt upon which he was given birth, to Nixon's personal copies of National Geographic, to Nixon's violin, Nixon's piano, and Nixon's clarinet. I was disappointed, though, to hear that the house stove was only a replica and not genuine. I would have liked to see the stove that cooked Nixon's eggs.
For future reference
The facility separates Nixon's political career by decade, from Congressman Nixon in the 1940s to President Nixon in the 1970s. Past the political timeline are the cultural exhibits: gifts from foreign dignitaries, the space program, Pat Nixon, Vietnam, China, the Cold War, (for some reason) the Declaration of Independence; and, at long last, the answer to the question: What do presidents do with all the crap people insist on sending them? The answer: if the objects are quirky or bizarre enough they go on display at the presidential library. In Nixon's case, these include the revolver and ammunition set given to him by Elvis Presley on their famous meeting.
Of all the many things you can observe and learn at the Nixon Library, however, the most instructive may be how to sanitize the reputation of a disgraced political figure. You invent your own set of collectible, posable Richard Nixon action figures, admirable ones to offset the more demeaning versions inhabiting popular culture.
Rule 1: Focus on childhood; humble beginnings are good.
The Nixon home may have been respectable and fairly modern in its day, but in the age of Twittering and iEverything it comes off as downright primitive, like the Little House on the Prairie. Absent of our modern conveniences, we can't help but consider how difficult it must have been for people to live back then, albeit in sunny California. This is the backdrop for "Quaker Nixon." The museum has an entire section on Nixon's youth: handwritten school assignments, school awards and metals, personal letters, class photos, a listing that reads: Richard Nixon, Class President. "Of course he was," I thought. "I'd be disappointed if he wasn't."
Rule 2: He must be a fighter, a man of strong moral conviction.
One notable interactive exhibit is a very detailed Dragnet-esque recounting of Nixon's near single-handed outing of Alger Hiss as a communist spy, complete with visual aids -- a feat which made him a political superstar and is cited as the main reason then-candidate Eisenhower chose him for his running-mate. This is "Spy-Hunter Nixon," complete with kung-fu grip.
Rule 3: Put some emphasis on the First Lady and the First Family.
For the most part, First Ladies remain decidedly uncontroversial, though Pat Nixon's fur coat on display in the Gown Gallery may draw the ire of some animal enthusiasts. There's a short film that plays in her section narrated by Jimmy Stewart. The wedding gowns of Dick and Pat's two daughters hang on mannequins in a hall beside their mother's clothes. This is "Nixon the Family Man," other figures sold separately.
Rule 4: Show that he loves children or that children love him.
Entire walls are dedicated to displaying handwritten notes from schoolchildren around the country lamenting his defeat in '60 and celebrating his victories in '68 and '72. Things like, "I stayed up all night to see you win but I fell asleep, and I was so sad in the morning when my daddy said you lost," and "I wish you were our president."
Rule 5: Associate him with great people. That the aura of greatness may rub off on him.
That picture of Nixon and Elvis (The President and The King) is on everything at the gift shop: postcards, mugs, fridge magnets, playing cards. I can't criticize this. No one can. If I had a picture of myself with Elvis I'd probably put it on everything, too -- it'd be my desktop wallpaper forever.
There's also a room with ten life-sized bronze statues of Cold War era world leaders in various poses. I was able to name all but one.
"That's Shigeru Yoshida, Prime Minister of Japan," said the attending docent. "Don't fret, nobody gets him."
"I should have," I thought-grumbled.
Rule 6: Concentrate on strengths, ignore failures.
You don't see or hear very much about Watergate at the Nixon Library. We invested 27 minutes sitting in the facility's theatre (across from one of the nicest restrooms I've ever seen, I must say) viewing a documentary, start to finish, about the life and political career of Nixon -- the rare authorized version. Filmed a few years before his death, it was partly narrated by Nixon himself. But this was a different Nixon than everyone is accustomed to, this was an elderly Santa-ish Nixon -- this was "Grandpa Nixon."
When the Watergate break-in came up it was immediately followed with the line: "Of course, the President knew nothing about this." Said as if nothing at all, so quick and so slight you would have thought it comparable to, "Of course, the President brushed his teeth before leaving for work." I gave a slight grimace. It succeeded in its intention, I suppose. It bridged the gap from election triumph to bitter resignation, eventually setting up his next political comeback, as "Elder Statesman Nixon" -- as Gandalf the White.
What would Nixon do?
The last exhibit we viewed before leaving the Nixon Library was only half-begun. It was the new permanent Watergate exhibit. Outlined on a wall, in red marker on taped loose-leaf paper, were the nascent beginnings of an exhibit piece. At this stage it looked like a high school poster project -- perhaps that's how they all start. On one side there were several block paragraphs, explaining the background to the infamous 18-and-a-half minutes of erased Whitehouse tapes where Nixon allegedly speaks to his Chief of Staff about the Watergate cover-up. On the other side was a list of factoids: What can a person do in 18-and-a-half minutes? One answer: Jog a certain length. I don't recall the rest, but they were along the same lines. I have a suspicion that this was designed specifically to lighten the seriousness of the subject matter, similar to a previous exhibit piece I viewed where pressing buttons would light up little red bulbs on maps showing where secret microphones were hidden. It will be interesting to see how this squares with, "Of course, the President knew nothing about this." Perhaps they'll have to change or update the film.
On the way out we passed through the gift shop. In among the expected -- golf balls, campaign buttons and books -- were a few unusual items. There were paper doll activity books in the children's section, depicting all the recent first-families, including the current Whitehouse occupants, in their undergarments ready for you to dress them up in various outfits. There was a good amount of Barrack Obama merchandise, which surprised me, though I suppose it only makes sense to hope the Obama popularity would rub off in some small way -- rule number five -- also he is the current President and everything. Among the clothing were pink baby-tees bedazzled with "First Lady," which I couldn't help but chuckle at, though it seemed wrong somehow.
I was tempted to buy a "What Would Nixon Do" t-shirt, thinking that whether it would be taken as genuine or ironic it would certainly be a conversation starter. In the end I left with a Nixon bottle-opener and a Nixon/Elvis fridge magnet.
Heading through the parking lot we passed a very large fountain, beside which we snapped our last photos. I had a surprisingly pleasant time at the Nixon Library and Birthplace. The weather was nice and the grounds were lovely, an easy rival to the many botanical gardens we have in B.C. I left thinking that I gained a more rounded view of the Nixon presidency, and of Nixon himself. Biased, yes, but no more biased than any comedy routine. As I sat in the car and my cousin started the engine, I thought to myself: Can the George W. Bush Library do any better?