Dick Nixons Orange County

A Guided Tour

Nixon officially joined the Lincoln Club after he resigned the presidency. Its peak of influence was in the halcyon days of the '80s, when money positively flooded into the accounts of land barons and developers such as George Argyros and the Irvine Co.'s Donald Bren. The Lincoln Club helped elect George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson. In addition to helping keep the county solidly Republican, it gave millions to Republican candidates across the country.

Although the group's critics say its power has waned since the 1980s, Lincoln Club insiders insist they're influential as long as people fear them.

Nixon officially stopped being the prez somewhere over Missouri at noon EST on Aug. 9, 1974. But you wouldn't have known it from the crowd gathered at the El Toro Marine base, where Air Force One landed at 11:56 a.m. PST and delivered the former president into his exile. The parking lot was filled with hundreds of cars, and the route to the base was packed with bumper-to-bumper traffic. Thousands of people waited behind runway fences. It would be the last rally of Nixon's career and certainly one of the few spontaneous ones ever. It may have been the most important one for the man, personally. Nixon disembarked, flashed his goofy grin and the V-for-Victory salute, walked to the fence, and began shaking hands. Someone said, "Whittier's still for you, Dick!" Someone else started singing "God Bless America." And soon, 5,000 people began to sing along—off-key, dissonant and overwhelming, according to the accounts. Nixon gave an impromptu speech, praised the weather, praised "this great plane" behind him, praised America. Then he and his family climbed into a camouflage Marine Huey helicopter—the same kind used in Vietnam—and choppered over to Nixon's home in San Clemente. All in all, it was one of the most memorable days in the history of the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, which, of course, has just closed forever.

Perhaps it is Nixon's parting-shot legacy that has cursed El Toro to become the most divisive issue in Orange County politics. Ever. Thanks to Pentagon downsizing, the Marine base is now county property. Whether to turn the former base into a commercial airport has pitted the rich people of South County against the rich people of Newport Beach, with the rest of the county kind of staying out of it.

Where would Nixon have stood? Probably with whomever stood to make the most money. As he told his final personal assistant, Monica Crowley, one of his final ambitions was to convince people that making money was not wrong, no matter what those goddamn liberals said.

Nixon repaired frequently to San Clemente while president. He called the spacious mansion he bought there in 1969 for $1.5 million "La Casa Pacifica." It overlooks the primo surfing spot of Trestles on San Mateo Point. The estate was originally a 25-acre property, formerly the home of H.H. Cotton, the man who financed the building of San Clemente. The Nixons lived on a modest 5 acres and sold the rest later that year for $1.2 million. The Nixon home was sold in 1980 to a three-member partnership of George Argyros, Gavin Herbert and Donald M. Koll. The price was estimated at $2 million, meaning that in less than 10 years, Nixon made a 700 percent profit. That partnership then subdivided the total estate into 16 lots. To date, only six of them have been sold.

The Nixons moved to San Clemente for the isolation and gorgeous view. But even here, they couldn't escape reality. The sound of shelling during maneuvers at neighboring Camp Pendleton could be heard nightly, as fresh Marines prepared for Vietnam.

Some of the key events in Nixon's presidency occurred here. Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev stayed overnight during a key stretch of detenté. It was here, on a warm July day in 1971, that Nixon authorized the creation of the Plumbers, the covert investigative unit that would eventually enmesh his administration in the Watergate scandal. It's where he watched John Dean begin his Watergate testimony and where he pondered resignation, late on New Year's Eve in 1973. He chose not to quit then, hanging on for eight more agonizing months. Then, on a nearby beach at Camp Pendleton, Nixon stood in dripping swim trunks and learned that the House Judiciary Committee had voted to approve the first article of impeachment against him.

Nixon stayed on in San Clemente for six years after his final flight to El Toro. It's where he fought for his private papers and documents, received his presidential pardon, nearly died from blood clots, and battled depression. It's where he nursed Pat back from a stroke, shared with Jimmy Cagney a bottle of wine given to him by Winston Churchill, and began plotting the comeback that would lead him from disgrace to the role of elder statesman.

But there is no mention of the historical significance of this property today. It's as remote and isolated as when Nixon lived here, part of the ultra-exclusive, gated Cypress Shores neighborhood, perhaps the most conservative neighborhood in the most conservative county in the country. Two years ago, 100 percent of the voters voted for the anti-bilingual Proposition 227.

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