The Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace is its own special reality. There, the sun beams down on roses growing to magnificent size, breezes blow amid a churchlike quiet and reverence, and everyone pretends the 37th president was never disgraced.
And that—its denizens' palpable, tragic love for a man who faced so much shame that in other cultures, he would have been driven to ritual suicide—makes it difficult to mock the Nixon Library. The true believers tour the tiny house where he was born and exclaim, shocked and dismayed, "Who would do that? Who would paint brick?" when the docent explains they had to blast off several layers of paint from the lovely fireplace. They hobble through the gardens, nattering on about their daughters-in-law. They beam. They are so happy to be here.
It's hard to kick a dog who's not merely down but dead, too—and it's bad manners—so when you go to the Nixon Library, wipe the ironical smirk from your face. But while you should be polite—you're in their home, after all—it's important to remember exactly what was wrong with Richard Nixon and why the entire country turned against him: he was a bigot, a crook and a 'noided-out superpowermonger who aimed to crush all those who dared go against him. Or was that Skeletor?
And these people who adore him so—while generally kindly in person—are the same cranks who fill The Orange County Register's Letters to the Editor page with their mean-spirited, Stone Age rants about the gays, the Mexicans, and women working outside the home.
Take the library's modest, simple tribute to Bob and Dolores Hope: "Red, White and Hope." It's an affectionate gesture of support for a couple who, while only arguably funny, nonetheless spent an awful lot of time in places like Korea, and, you know, Suriname or something because they thought it was important Our Boys over there have a touch of home. But as soon as the library opened its small exhibition, staff received a haranguing e-mail from some old bastard who wanted to know why they would sully the affair by putting Dolores' name on it. "Why would you honor his wife? She didn't do anything. He's the one who deserves all the credit," a warm library liaison told me the old bastard had ranted. Of course, these are the same people who always explain that it's okay for women to be relegated to the home, Taliban-style, because they are respected and cherished there as helpmates. Except, apparently, when they're not. (The liaison responded to the old bastard that she had checked into his complaint and found that Dolores had in fact traveled with Bob to all those far-off places, going back to the 1960s, and did indeed deserve the credit for it. She never called him an old bastard, either.)
There isn't a lot to see in "Red, White and Hope." In a mere corner of the foyer, glass cases overflow with simple artifacts and many still photos of Bob with his famous friends. Like I said, it's sweet. There's a collection of "zany" Christmas cards from Bob and Dolores, including one bearing the legend "Oat Bran Works Wonders, Doesn't It? . . . And Prune Juice Doesn't Hurt Either." Firm stools seem an odd pairing with the birth of our Risen Lord, Jesus Christ, but I guess when you're Bob Hope, you can get away with a lot.
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The Hopes were delighted to have the library approach them about an exhibit, loaning items straight off the mantel. You'll find his special-edition putter, his Emmy and his Oscar. There are Bob's varied covers (that's "hats" in Marine talk); there are pictures of him with Kennedy, Johnson and Eleanor Roosevelt, who is, as usual, all teeth. There is a photo in which you can see Raquel Welch's panties as she frugs onstage with some servicemen during one of her incessant USO tours.
But by far, the most beautiful photo in the exhibit is a large shot of servicemen sitting on sandy soil, watching a show. The grays are warm, and the soldiers rest their rifles in their laps. In the foreground, a man with a scuzzy bandage on his cheek throws his mouth open wide, laughing like a maniac. His front tooth is missing, and oh, how he is enjoying himself! The only person not laughing looks Korean, and it's unclear whether he's a Korean-American or a Korean national hanging out for the entertainment. Either way, he doesn't find Bob Hope funny. It is an exceptional picture.
Over in the gallery, "The Sunshine of Her Style" pays tribute to the gowns and fashions of Pat Nixon. And while she was rightly laughed at as a dowd, it is extremely refreshing for someone who grew up with the excesses of Nancy Reagan to see a first lady who liked her frocks cheap. Mrs. Nixon's pink polyester gowns may have been hideous clown suits, but you didn't have to iron them, and there's a lot to be said for that. In fact, Mrs. Nixon (who was a very handsome woman back in the '50s) seemed to embody the best kind of old-fashioned American pioneer values—practicality and thriftiness—or at least her dresses did. Many of them were bizarre creations, but her favorite, in which she sat for her official portrait, was periwinkle blue with big faux-pearl florettes and an empire waist. It's actually very lovely. And the cranks who fill the Register's letters page could have had no problems with Mrs. Nixon's demure demeanor—or her chosen career of helpmate.
"Red, White and Hope" and "The Sunshine of Her Style" at Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace, 18001 Yorba Linda Blvd., Yorba Linda, (714) 993-5075; www.nixonfoundation.org. Open Mon.-Sat., 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. "Red, White and Hope": through May 29; "The Sunshine of Her Style": through July 22. $2-$5.95; admission to the library is free on Memorial Day.