Dick Nixons Orange County

A Guided Tour

While inaccessible by car, you can catch a glimpse of the property by foot. Park at San Clemente State Beach and follow the coastline south. Technically, this is a private beach, but who's telling? Here you can see the gazebo where FDR once played cards with Cotton. But that's as close as you can get. The property is protected by fences, alarms and very mean guard dogs. The only other building that can be seen from the beach is a new addition completed just weeks ago.

The Nixon Library should have been built in San Clemente. Nixon chose it over Whittier in the '80s. The site was on the Marblehead Bluff; Nixon's friend, Irvine developer John Lusk, donated 17 acres of land for the project. But the library was a kind of lure attached to a controversial 253-acre residential and commercial development. The controversy raged, and finally Nixon set a deadline for approval that the city couldn't meet. The library went to Yorba Linda.

Marblehead has remained a dogged controversy in this city, as citizens groups have fought for years to protect some of the integrity of the land, the last undeveloped stretch of coastal property in the town. Lusk died at the age of 91, just weeks short of final victory: last month, the City Council finally approved plans for a high-end commercial development on the property. The development was approved even though opposed residents filed a 5,100-signature petition calling for a special election on the issue. That petition was disqualified on technical grounds.

A sign that used to welcome visitors to San Clemente—"Home of the Western White House"—now hangs on the wall of the Swallows Inn in San Juan Capistrano. (Rumor has it that a San Clemente city official was bounced from the place when he tried to appropriate the sign a couple of weeks ago.) Down the street is the well-known El Adobe, a joint Nixon swore was his "favorite Mexican restaurant." But El Adobe served straightforward American cuisine. Owner Dick O'Neill—a wealthy developer in his own right and a Democrat—welcomed the publicity: he quickly changed the menu to reflect Nixon's sense of the place. There's still a President's Special on the menu: enchilada, chili relleno, taco and guacamole. Very tasty.

Nixon remnants have been stolen elsewhere in San Clemente. Shortly after he resigned, bronze busts of Nixon and the missus disappeared from San Clemente City Hall. The Nixon markers in San Clemente today are in the Heritage of San Clemente Foundation Visitor Center, which is run by Democrat Wayne Eggleston. It features a replica of the Western White House as well as articles and photos about the Nixons' life in San Clemente. The center opened in 1997. "Hey, whatever you think of him," says Eggleston, who was elected to the City Council last year, "Nixon is a part of local history."

Drive anywhere in Kansas, and you know you're in Eisenhower country. Same with western Missouri and Harry S. Truman. Illinois is the Land of Lincoln. Virginia has been home to so many presidents that the state is itself a monument to early American idealism.

But this is Orange County. And we've always been in a rush—to develop sprawling housing tracts, to lay toll roads through wilderness, to line every street with strip malls. Who has time to remember what used to be? Maybe the fact that there's so little mention of Nixon's passage through Orange County is a sign that 25 years after he left office, it's still difficult to get a handle on him. Maybe it's impossible to commemorate a man who continues to elicit such passion on both ends of the political spectrum. Or maybe no one really give a shit.

Someone evidently did in La Habra, site of the only Nixon marker in this county that isn't inside a museum. It's at the site of his first solo law office on La Hsabra Boulevard, one of the more unheralded parts of his life. The town was a languid backwater in 1939, and townspeople remembered the young lawyer "sitting alone at the back of Ben Roberts' Real Estate and Insurance. He stayed out there for days on end, waiting for business."

That building is gone. But a plaque mounted on the building shortly after Nixon became president was saved. Beneath that plaque is an inscription from a letter Nixon wrote to the city in 1992, saying that while he appreciated the efforts of friends in La Habra to keep his office from the wrecking ball, the historical significance was outweighed by the fact that time moves on. In effect, Nixon seemed to be saying: go ahead and tear it down. Who needs it? I sure don't.

The city tore the building down. But it commissioned the plaque and saved some of the law office's bricks and erected this squat little marker in the middle of what is now a parking lot.

Not much, really, by way of tribute. But its rather isolated feeling makes it the most affecting and immediate memory of Richard M. Nixon in the entire county. It's history, just waiting for someone to discover its significance. It's not dressed up in hype and hyperbole. Just a simple plaque commemorating one small chapter in the life of a man who, for better and for worse, brought this county the closest it has ever come to history, to great, tragic history.

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