The ad on page B-10 of the June 16 Los Angeles Times may have just been one-eighth of a page, but it was still exciting to behold: "Come see how Watergate was sparked by President Nixon's effort to end America's involvement in Vietnam with honor," begged the ad for the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace, sandwiched between advertisements for a sale on garage doors and laser-vision surgery. "For the whole story on Watergate and Vietnam, come to Yorba Linda."
The occasion for the ad was the 30th anniversary of the Watergate break-in. On June 17, 1972, five goons from Nixon's Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP) busted into the Washington, D.C., Watergate Hotel and tried to bug the Democratic Party headquarters. Their subsequent arrest sparked a media and congressional firestorm that ended 26 months later when a thoroughly disgraced Richard Nixon resigned the presidency and fled to San Clemente.
Visions of patriotic festoonery, stirring marching-band music, cheap hot dogs, party hats and noisemakers filled our heads as we drove to the Nixon Library on Watergate Day to visit the Watergate Gallery. We imagined long lines of sweaty, irritable tourists wrapping around carny games like "Guess the Name of Deep Throat!" and "Find the Telephone Bug!"
Instead, we found the place just as deserted and morgue-like as usual. Sure, there were the bored seniors—including one old duffer in a gray porkpie hat—but mostly they just cared about Nixon's old limo on display in an adjoining room. And the few who managed to reach the Watergate Gallery, near the end of the museum, usually mumbled something like, "Oh, I guess this is the Watergate room," before walking quickly on to a tiny re-creation of Nixon's New Jersey study. Hardly anyone noticed us as we milled about in the dark gallery, patiently examining the many displays explaining why Nixon had no culpability in Watergate.
One card said Watergate is just "a catchword for every misjudgment, miscalculation or crime, imagined or real, that had ever been contemplated by anyone even remotely connected with the Nixon administration." Another referred to the scandal that ended with the first-ever presidential resignation as an "epic and bloody political battle fought for the highest stakes, with no holds barred. President Nixon's reputation and ability to govern was the battlefield."
Another display insisted that Nixon first heard of the break-in when he read a June 18, 1972, Miami Herald story, which he thought "bizarre." "Not one shred of evidence was ever unearthed which even remotely suggested that the president ordered the bugging or knew about it in advance," the display insisted.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Of course, many of Nixon's secret tapes have since revealed that the president knew his aides were committing crimes in his name. He may not have known the details, but he knew they were happening. Of this small fact, the Library says nothing.
But most intriguing was a reprint of a letter then-presidential speechwriter Ben Stein wrote Nixon on Aug. 6, 1974, two days before Dick announced his resignation. "I write to you in your moment of crisis to tell you that I think you are a great man," wrote Stein, who went on to play the monotoned, monochromatic teacher in the 1986 Matthew Broderick movie Ferris Bueller's Day Off.
Added Stein, who currently hosts the Emmy-winning game show Win Ben Stein's Money on cable TV's Comedy Central, "Today, many small animals are gnawing upon a great man, namely you."
Many small animals—everywhere except Yorba Linda.