Dick Nixons Orange County

A Guided Tour

Art by Bob AulWithout the railroad, this place wouldn't have become Orange County, and little Dick Nixon—raised in short pants and dust—wouldn't have grown up to become Richard M. Nixon.

Passenger-fare wars between the Santa Fe and Southern Pacific lines in the late 1880s made it possible for hard-working, God-fearing, politically conservative (but poor) Midwesterners and Southerners to move here in great numbers. At one point, a one-way ticket from Kansas City to Los Angeles cost $1. On the return trip, Southern California shipped new ideas—real-estate marketing, chiropractic medicine, odd religions—and lemons and oranges.

Without the railroad, Frank Nixon wouldn't have drifted to Los Angeles in 1907 to land a job as a streetcar conductor. Nor would he have lost that job after hitting an automobile, an act of fate or negligence that drove him into manual labor and failure as a lemon rancher at the eastern terminus of the Pacific Electric railroad line in a Quaker town called Yorba Linda.

Without the railroad, Frank Nixon's son, Richard, wouldn't have heard the hypnotic rhythm of railroad cars rattling on the tracks a mile from his house, or the sound of locomotive whistles piercing the stillness of the night. He wouldn't have imagined his earliest dream, of someday becoming a railroad engineer, of traveling to distant, unknown places. It's an understandable ambition in a young boy growing up in a dusty little town at the edge of a desert where rattlesnakes and tumbleweeds outnumber possibility 100 to one.

It makes some sense, then, that a quarter-mile from the high-tech, immaculate Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace in Yorba Linda is a different kind of memorial to our most famous native son and former president: two railroad cars rotting on the side of Imperial Highway. They're antique railroad cars, two of the hundreds of Pacific Electric cars that made up the mass-transit system traversing Los Angeles and Orange counties. A plaque on the first car reads, "Mini-Museum. President Nixon. Pacific Electric Car." But it's not much of a museum, even for a mini one. The windows are boarded, the cars little more than splinters and rust. There's graffiti scrawled on the back and Coors Light cans tossed carelessly underneath. It seems more abandoned than merely unkempt, like a once-cherished memory deliberately driven into oblivion.

Standing atop one of the cars, you can watch automobiles stream by on Imperial Highway, steered by drivers doing what so many of us do in Yorba Linda: driving through it as fast as possible. But the Red Cars make a kind of weird, poetic sense: I'd come to the Nixon Library today, for the first time, to pay my own kind of respects to the memory of the only man ever to resign as U.S. president; the 25th anniversary of that resignation is Monday. These dilapidated cars suggest the underbelly of the Nixon legacy, the neglected, provincial part scarcely touched by the brightly polished, cosmopolitan history found inside the Nixon Library.

Any guided tour of Nixon Country must begin with the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace. It's required visiting for even the most casual student of history and worth the price of admission ($5.95) just to trip out as you stand toe-to-toe with life-size statues of the world leaders Nixon thought were most important in his life. I especially like the pint-sized Nikita Khrushchev and the towering Charles de Gaulle. The stacks of Dan Quayle books for sale at the entrance stink of brimstone.

Nixon's family left Yorba Linda for nearby Whittier when he was 9. But there is one other Yorba Linda building that offers a glimpse of his life you don't get from his memoirs or the more soft-boiled biographies.

Nixon painted those days in Yorba Linda as a time of bucolic peace in an unspoiled countryside. In reality, it was a dusty, windy, arid piece of land filled with snakes, horned toads and all kinds of things that bit, clawed and scratched. If you think Santa Ana winds are hell now, imagine what they must have been like 80 years ago, when there were no trees or buildings to block their howling progress.

Human nature was also quite different from the Rockwellian portrait of salt-of-the-earth farmers. Orange County politics were already taking on the fiercely conservative tone that would brand it for the rest of the century. In common terms, that tone was produced by the middle-American values all those Quakers and Methodists and other migrants brought with them—the devotion to local control and free enterprise. In more extreme terms, such conservatism could heartily embrace fanatical groups like the Ku Klux Klan, which dominated city government in nearby Anaheim in the 1920s. In that town, the city pool was drained and refilled after the one day each week that Mexican children were allowed to swim.

Yorba Linda escaped that taint, but the Yorba Linda Packing House reflects a glimmer of the turbulence that engulfed most of the nation in the years following World War I. Just east of the Nixon Library on Yorba Linda Boulevard, the Packing House is reckoned to be the place where Richard's mother, Hannah, went to work after Frank's lemon grove went sour. Labor in the packinghouse was harrowing and, for Hannah, humiliating: being forced to work long hours for low wages was bad enough; being forced to do so alongside Mexicans and other poor migrants was, she felt, the real punishment. According to Roger Morris, one of Nixon's biographers, young Richard was physically repulsed by the movement and sounds of the heavy machinery. It's interesting to wonder about his psychology: his experience with the Dickensian plant could have turned Orange County's most famous conservative into a radical. But it didn't, even when he woke up one morning in 1920 and saw, with the rest of his town, that agitators affiliated with the radical International Workers of the World, or Wobblies, had painted a huge IWW on the walls of the packinghouse.

There's no mention of that event in the Yorba Linda Packing House, which has been renovated into a tastefully designed, open-air office building, complete with what appears to be the original angled ceiling. But pictures of old-time Yorba Linda hang on the walls along with a couple of Nixon family portraits. It's not exactly a monument to history, but it's something, an indication that once upon a time, this place was something other than a home for chiropractors' offices and a 24-Hour Fitness gym.

Living in Whittier, Nixon's parents daily sent him back into Orange County to attend Fullerton Union High School for his first two years; the Nixons apparently felt that Dick's older brother, Harold, had been corrupted by life in Whittier. Fullerton Union still stands; Nixon began to shine there as a public speaker and as a boy with a remarkable capacity for punishment on the football field. But while the campus is one of the most ornate in the county, there's no mention of Nixon's enrollment to the casual passerby. Another famous student goes unmentioned as well—Walter Johnson, the Big Train, maybe the greatest pitcher who ever lived.

Across the street is Fullerton College, which Patricia Ryan—later Pat Nixon—attended.

North County is full of unmarked Nixon sites. At age 5, Nixon attended an American Legion parade in Placentia shortly after World War I ended. He remembered seeing a hanged effigy of the Kaiser and thinking it was the real thing. Buena Park was the site of a Nixon campaign rally in his first bid for president in 1960; Anaheim Stadium frequently hosted Nixon in the '70s. He was a big Angels fan, and somewhere there's a photo of him getting doused by Bobby Grich after the Angels won their first division title in 1979.

But these are all scattered moments. Without the biographers and newspapers, you'd never know Nixon was there.

Nixon spent his teenage and young-adult years in Whittier, where he graduated from high school and college, got his first law job, worked for the city, and launched his political career. This city provided the foundation upon which Nixon was to build a tower to the presidency. But today, what may be most remarkable about Whittier's relationship to that past is the almost complete absence of Richard Nixon sightings.

When Frank moved his family to Whittier, he opened a three-pump service station on the southeast corner of what is now Whittier Boulevard and Santa Gertrudes. At the time, the station was a tiny island surrounded by a sea of citrus. Today, all traces of agriculture are gone. Banks and stores and auto dealerships line the boulevard as far as you can see. The service station is still there, now boarded-up and highlighted by for-sale signs. One of the many ironies in the Nixon story is that Frank, who also owned a small general store next door to the service station, detested chain stores. Across the street today is the Whitwood Shopping Center, whose proud occupants include Old Navy, Sears, Carl's Jr. and Mervyn's.

The house in which Nixon spent his formative years is also standing, just down the street from the corner lot. Its bright Victorian façade has been preserved by the current occupant—an antique store. The only mention of its historical significance is found on crude photocopies of a newspaper article stuffed into an envelope taped to the door. The article includes a short synopsis on the house and a caricature of Nixon appearing to roll his baggy eyes at a block of text trumpeting the fact that "Something very exciting is happening here! Consignments!"

Across the street is the original Quaker church in East Whittier—still standing, still a church—where the Nixons attended services three times per week.

Both Whittier College and the Whittier Museum keep extensive collections of Nixon letters, papers and books. The museum is also working on an exhibit that will duplicate Nixon's first law office.

But the rest of the city seems to have forgotten Nixon—or isn't sure what to make of him. Denzil Heaney, who runs the museum, says opinion remains polarized, 25 years after Nixon's resignation. "You say his name and you just don't know what kind of reaction you're going to get," he says. "The nicest person in the world can turn and walk away, while someone mean will brighten up."

That polarization began long before Watergate. In the '60s, a group of anti-Nixon residents, still smarting from his destruction of Jerry Voorhis in his first campaign and the repeated scandals of his early political career, defeated an effort to name a street after him. In June 1994, Whittier officials honored Nixon's death that spring by naming after him a small access road near City Hall. Residents blocked any grander effort; it seems no one wanted the bother of changing addresses.

But the most obvious sign of the weight of Nixon's memory on this town is the fact that it doesn't have Nixon's presidential library. The city tried three times, with Whittier College leading the first attempt shortly after Nixon's election as president in 1968. The city came up with a brochure and promotional campaign, detailed architectural renderings were prepared, and there was talk of creating a trail that would wind through Whittier, stopping at key places in Nixon's life. But then came Watergate, and any talk of a presidential library suddenly seemed a crude joke.

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.

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.

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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