Fun With Dick

No. 8: Our borderline-deceitful presidential library should be a true landmark

"This isn't like one of those documentaries you see on the History Channel," says the kindly old gent stationed at the entrance of the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace in Yorba Linda.

He's talking to me and his words hang in the air for a moment. Isn't like one of those documentaries you see on the History Channel—and I feel . . . suspicious.

Is he acknowledging that the History Channel's programming is typically embraced by the likes of Wilford Brimley and Tony Soprano while intimating that the documentary about to flicker in the Nixon Library theater matches the cinematic thrills of Hitchcock, Scorsese and Tarantino?

Rest in hell . . . Dick. Photo by Joel Beers
Rest in hell . . . Dick. Photo by Joel Beers

Or is he referring to the History Channel's well-documented penchant for spreading left-wing/liberal/commie/anti-Nixon claptrap? Yeeeaaaah!Maybe this fellow only pretended to down the Cult of Nixon Kool-Aid at orientation, tuned in to my smirking aura, and decided to let slip a tip that a platter of pure propaganda was about to be served?

In any case the blue-blazered docent seemed to be looking out for me. After unfolding a map of the grounds and tracing the best route to follow, he said the film would start in less than 10 minutes and advised that it'd be best to remain in the lobby for now.

"You really should see it," he said, almost pleading, as if this would be one of those kick-yourself-forever-for-missing-it-moments, like the time I blew off that Miles Davis concert and, next thing I know he's off to that great jazz quintet in the sky. "I'll come get you."

Sure enough, halfway through the lobby display on the Nixon family timeline the kindly docent ambled over and informed me that the film would start in less than a minute and it would be best if I grabbed a good seat.

The Nixon Library not only ranks among the tops in Orange County for helpful museum docents in blue blazers but it's got the best theater for miles. Squeaky clean, this movie palace does not smell of mold, stale popcorn or teen lust. American flags stand like sentries on either side of the screen and if it was 105 degrees outside instead of 75 the arctic air they pumped in would actually be welcome.

The first thing to flash on-screen was a note informing the audience that the film was produced before the deaths of Pat ('93) and Dick ('94). The title? Never Give Up: Richard Nixon in the Arena. Hey! Hey! Keep those snickers to yourself! Yes, Nixon was and is the only president to have given up, to have resigned from office. But Never Give Up is the theme that gurgles throughout this entire privately funded complex. Despite setback after setback, as we're told and shown in every conceivable way, Richard Nixon always bounced back. Yes, even after losing his grip on the White House.

To the uninitiated—in other words the disinterested tourist who kills a half day at the Nixon because, hell, who wants to hand over his entire 401k to Disney?—Never Give Up probably seems evenhanded. But subtle touches are slipped in. We're told that our 37th president had enemies throughout his career—a "left-wing New York newspaper," communists, the Democrats—but there is no mention of his infamous personal enemies list. We hear about allegations of "vote stealing" that led to John F. Kennedy's victory in 1960 but not of Tricky Dick's own shady electioneering dating back to his first run for Congress. If his vice president, Spiro Agnew, was ever on screen it was brief, totally forgettable—and certainly unbefitting of the second U.S. veep ever to resign and the first to plead no contest to charges of criminal tax evasion and money laundering.

Never Give Up presents as flat-out facts lots of things that no one really knows is true. Like that Nixon knew nothing of his campaign workers' break-in at the Watergate Hotel, or of the far more damning White House cover-up of that "third rate burglary." Like the Library where it's shown, the film sticks to Nixon's truly spectacular accomplishments: his stunning 1968 presidential victory; the first and only successful war on drugs; clean air and water laws that his Republican descendants have been undoing ever since; the first man on the moon; the desegregation of public schools; and the ditching of the mandatory military draft.

Then comes his greatest achievement: achieving "peace with honor" in Vietnam and bringing our boys home safely. Needlessly escalating casualties? Engaging in chemical warfare that forever scarred a foreign country, its inhabitants and our own troops? Lying to the collective face of America about secretly bombing Cambodia? We skip such minor details to cut straight to Dick's bold acts of statesmanship, such as opening the door to China and cooling off the hostilities with the Soviet Union. We then learn in Never Give Upthat despite his never being a quitter, Richard Nixon only quit for the good of the country. And like other political defeats before, he came back, this time as our great nation's Elder Statesman. "Even the press said so," informs the narrator, and you wonder if a certain left-wing New York newspaper chipped in for that coronation.

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