Dick Nixons Orange County

A Guided Tour

In 1983, interest picked up again after Duke University, where Nixon earned his law degree, and UC Irvine both turned down the library because of restrictions Nixon wanted to impose on researchers. Whittier came calling again; Nixon chose San Clemente.

Today, there's still no sign of that heritage trail. And just under the hillside ridge where the beautifully designed library would have been erected is the city dump.

On the corner of Philadelphia and Greenleaf, in the center of Uptown Whittier, is the tallest building in Whittier's oldest commercial district. The bank is gone, but the building is still referred to as the Bank of America Building. An early tenant, the law firm of Wingert & Bewley, hired Nixon in 1937, fresh out of law school. His office was on the sixth floor. The firm handled mostly the estate and probate cases of Whittier's wealthier residents and represented some oil firms. But Nixon got in a couple of good licks. He helped drive a café that served beer out of business. Prohibition had ended four years before, but the town was dry, and the café owner, displaying a kind of regional libertarianism, flouted the law by serving beer. Nixon crushed the business by encouraging officials to post police at the tavern doors. He also successfully prosecuted an old carpenter who ran a part-time business out of his garage; his power tools upset the neighbors.

The building is also where Nixon worked during his one and only attempt at private business, when he was named president of a fledgling frozen orange juice company. No one had figured out the chemistry behind a proper container, and Nixon's boss in the law firm, Tom Bewley, would later recall Nixon's fevered attempts to get it right long after everyone else knew there was no hope. Nixon "would work like a dog. He was out there cutting oranges and squeezing oranges day and night after he'd do the work here," Bewley said. "And he just couldn't realize that they wouldn't make a success of that."

Even Nixon finally got the message: after freezing the juice in small plastic bags and stuffing a refrigerated boxcar full of them resulted in an explosion, Citra-Frost went bankrupt, nearly taking the young attorney with it.

But more important than what Nixon did while working in that building was who he met: Herman Perry, the bank manager, whose office was located on the ground floor. Perry was Nixon's first political patron, the most important factor in helping Nixon gain the support of local Republicans in his first congressional bid.

Despite all that history, the stately building is largely mute on Nixon. The ground floor is now inhabited by Stixx, an upscale pool hall that packs in the college crowd on weekend nights, infuriating old-line Whittier residents. Nixon, who was quite a poker player himself, might appreciate the irony, but old-timers who pine for their quiet uptown hate it. As one Whittier resident with links to community groups told me, "I'd rather be seen walking out of a whorehouse than be seen walking out of that place."

No one can say whether Nixon ever frequented Whittier's Jimtown, but it's sure fun to think about. In its earliest days, Whittier was virtually segregated. Mexican laborers and black shoeshine boys were allowed to work by day in the city, but at night, they were banished to this shantytown perched along the banks of the unpredictable San Gabriel River. As late as 1936, roving bands of armed vigilantes attacked the defenseless community, whipped up by the bloody citrus riots, which were sparked by attempts to unionize Orange County citrus laborers. Adding insult to the Mexican nationals' injuries, Jimtown was also home to the once-sprawling mansion of California's last Mexican governor, Pio Pico. The mansion is still there, now reduced to a rambling wreck.

Over the years, poverty made Jimtown the kind of release valve found at the outskirts of countless uptight Anglo communities throughout the nation. As a young man, Nixon undoubtedly knew all about Jimtown. But did he ever visit after-hours? Who knows?

As late as the '70s, Jimtown was still rife with strip clubs and massage parlors, but it's far from sleazy now. In fact, it lacks personality altogether. Adult-oriented businesses, save for a fairly spotless adult bookstore, have been cleared out. It's now Anywhere Southern California with an AM/PM on one corner.

The residents still call it Jimtown, though, according to a guy cradling a paper bag filled with a quart of King Cobra, kicking it in the shade of the Pio Pico mansion. "Yep," the guy says reflectively. "Place used to rock."

What does he think of Nixon? He says he doesn't, not at all, but he calls out to his younger partner for a second opinion.

"Hey, man, what you think of Nixon?"

"He was a dick."

"Yeah, that's what they called him, Tricky Dicky."

"No, I mean he was a dick," the younger guy says, taking a slug of malt liquor. "I mean, he really lost the trust of the people, you know?"

The Santa Ana Country Club is the site of the monthly breakfasts of the Lincoln Club, a group of wealthy Republicans who have given untold millions to conservative candidates and causes over the years. You might say Nixon helped launch the club, which was founded in 1962, shortly after Nixon lost to Pat Brown in the race for California governor. Nixon had been weakened by a brutal primary fight launched by extremists from the local John Birch Society. The Lincoln Club formed to gain control over more moderate Republicans and to make sure the Orange County Republican Party never again ate its own.

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