Everybody knows that Richard Milhous Nixon, the only United States president born in Orange County, spent the 20 years between leaving office in 1974 and his death in 1994 totally re-creating himself. Not so many people realize that the second coming of Nixon was even more pathetic than the first—the one that made him the only U.S. president ever to resign in disgrace. To know that, you have to go to the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace.
Nixon himself opened his presidential library in Yorba Linda in 1990. The library's many exhibits and materials—all approved by Nixon—form a unique portrait of the nation's 37th president as a small-minded, cantankerous pack rat.
Nixon would reminisce about his days growing up in a minuscule mail-order house in rural Yorba Linda and his years warming the bench for the Whittier College football squad for the rest of his life, but it was really World War II that sent his star soaring. First stationed at the Office of Price Administration in 1942, Nixon masterminded a far-reaching restructuring of the federal government's tire-rationing policy. "Certificates for recapped or retreaded tires may be issued," Nixon wrote in a bold but now crinkly March 12, 1942, memo, "for such private passenger automobiles where the applicant uses the automobile principally on official business directly related to the furtherance of the war effort."
Exciting as that was, Nixon soon joined the U.S. Naval Reserve and shipped out to the Pacific, where he worked as a supply officer in the occupied Solomon Islands. In 1944, Vice Admiral J.H. Newton officially commended then-Lieutenant Nixon for "meritorious and efficient performance of duty," which included organizing supply schedules and performing liaison work between the various military supply commands then occupying the Solomons.
Only when it was clear the U.S. would defeat Japan did the Pentagon release Nixon to return home to Whittier and run for public office. In 1946, Nixon defeated incumbent Democratic Congressman Jerry Voorhis. Nixon probably won on the strength of his Navy uniform and good looks—the library's photocopy of the old black-and-white newspaper photo of Voorhis clearly shows the old New Dealer wasn't much to look at.
In 1950, after two terms in the House, Nixon ran against Democrat Helen Gahagan Douglas for the U.S. Senate in what Nixon called a "rocking, socking" campaign. Both candidates distributed sleazy handbills denouncing each other, but exhibit photos show Nixon finally won after campaigning heavily outside the Lamont Supply Co. and Sunkist corporate headquarters.
Nixon stayed in the U.S. Senate just two years before joining Dwight Eisenhower's presidential ticket. Ike and Dick won easily. One of Nixon's responsibilities as vice president was to collect all the keys that unlocked the nation's cities. A massive glass case at the library contains more than a dozen such keys, including the golden key that unlocks Titusville, Florida.
An exhibit titled "Reshaping the Vice Presidency" shows Nixon's influence over the industry of cheap election paraphernalia. His vision in those early years mostly consisted of golf balls labeled "Dwight Eisenhower" and white metal buckets carrying the slogan "Let's Clean Up With Eisenhower and Nixon." But by the 1956 re-election campaign, sexual double-entendre entered the campaign, and buttons proudly proclaiming "Keep Dick on the Job" adorned the clothes and hats of many a Nixon voter.
Eight years as VP under Ike had to lead to something, and for Nixon that meant the 1960 race for president against Senator John F. Kennedy. The candidates made history battling on television in four vigorous debates, with Nixon losing the first because, according to the debate-exhibit narrator, he "perspired noticeably."
The election—one of the closest in history—also pushed the envelope of useless campaign crap. Nixon fielded numerous buttons—both conventional and nuclear. The former proclaimed simple, plainspoken messages like "I'm for Nixon" or "Nixon Lodge"; the latter were little pins shaped like H-bombs advertising "Veterans for Nixon" and "Click With Dick." In the end, the Good Humor Ice Cream Co. had to decide the race with its competing ice-cream bars labeled "Kennedy" and "Nixon." It was Nixon's first electoral loss since high school.
By 1968, after eight years of aimless wandering (although he did wear a short-sleeved shirt for a brief period while visiting the Bohemian Grove in San Francisco in 1967), Nixon finally came up with a new political slogan: "Nixon's the One!" Armed with his new catch phrase, Nixon campaigned furiously for the presidency.
After months of grueling work, Nixon secured a key endorsement from Uncle Sam: a button commemorating the election-winning event showed a picture of America's favorite uncle saying, "He's good enough for me in '68." Democratic opponent Hubert Humphrey fought on but finally conceded defeat soon after a photographer snapped a picture of a field 6 miles outside Hastings, Nebraska, where the farmer had carved "NIXON" into his corn. No, not the one on his foot. That we would have wanted to see.
As president, Nixon ended America's involvement in the Vietnam War, but for some reason not identified by the library, he took four years to do it, during which time another 25,000 Americans died—along with countless Vietnamese—for nothing. Nixon also visited China, where he ate with chopsticks (carefully preserved in a glass case next to an acupuncture doll and some Ping-Pong paddles).
But mostly Nixon drove around in a big black 1967 Lincoln Continental powered by a .462-cubic-centimeter, 340-horsepower V-8 engine. The $500,000 car, on display in a room making minimal reference to Nixon's domestic agenda, boasted amenities like a fold-down rear bumper for Secret Service agent ride-alongs, run-flat tires, glass that could stop a .30-caliber bullet and 2 tons of armor plating.
Nixon's 1972 re-election campaign was the culmination of his years in and out of power. Sophisticated buttons appealed to groups usually excluded from American politics: Ukrainians, Bulgarians, Poles, Cossacks, Byelorussians and "pretty girls"—there is actually a button that reads "Pretty Girls for Nixon." As for the Watergate-inspired cover-up and hush-money payments—both authorized by Nixon—the library takes pains to explain that Nixon did nothing wrong. Since the library doesn't explain why Nixon resigned after doing nothing wrong, visitors can treat the whole Watergate exhibit as a fun-filled mystery.
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Other library exhibits show the toll Watergate took on the increasingly paranoid president. Somewhere between the 6-by-5-foot blowup photograph of Nixon and wife Pat making a large snowman on the White House lawn and the glass case featuring a silver Christmas card from Liberace in which a color photo of Liberace pops out of the card when it's opened, it becomes irrefutable that Nixon lost touch with reality.
But then curators go in for the kill, revealing that on Jan. 15, 1973, during the depths of the media's Watergate feeding frenzy, Nixon wrote a rambling letter to Ray Kroc, then-president of McDonald's, describing how he recently discovered the Golden Arches. Calling the restaurant "probably one of the best food buys in America!" Nixon told Kroc how the "Big Mac" was almost as good as his wife's burgers and that in the future, he would patronize a McDonald's in the Washington area.
After his exit from the White House, Nixon wrote books on foreign policy and generally wasted what time he had left on Earth by writing self-serving letters to other famous old people, like Jackie Kennedy and Helen Hayes. In 1982, Nixon hand-wrote a note to President Ronald Reagan, offering this advice: "Stay steady in the buggy." The exhibit is ambiguous as to whether Ron—or Nancy—ever took the advice, but Reagan did use the word "stay" in subsequent political campaigning, and people have since noted that the president was clearly buggy even while in the White House.
In 1994, Nixon died. He and his wife are buried outside, between the tiny house he grew up in and a Pepsi machine situated near the library's reflecting pool.