"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?
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.
God bless you, Richard Nixon.
* * *
Must . . . have . . . fresh . . . air!
Outside a warm wind blows along the route paralleling the reflecting pond. The grounds open up to the grassy areas and gardens surrounding the modest, white house where Richard Nixon was born. I follow a curvy cement path to the humble abode and after a turn, seemingly out of nowhere and with nothing to indicate this is where they are, I find I am standing above two simple black marble burial markers for Pat and Richard Nixon. Her epitaph reads "Even when people can't speak your language, they can tell if you have love in your heart." She was always pleasant enough and certainly didn't seem to deserve her lot in life, so that seems fitting. Moving over to her husband's: "The greatest honor history can bestow is the title of peacemaker."
Maybe it was the movie and the various other displays on the way to this gravesite—coupled with that pleasingly warm Yorba Linda wind blowing in one ear, dancing around the mushy membrane encased in the skull and then wafting out the other—but that epitaph now seems appropriate, especially right here and right now, for a great man who in every other context until the end of time will be defined by Watergate. For perhaps the first time ever, I feel a positivity toward the guy six feet under my feet, and a tingling feeling that . . . Uhhh . . . what the hell?
Suddenly the hairs on the back of my neck are standing up. Something ain't quite right. A quick glance to the right and that something is revealed. Someone is standing about 30 yards away from me, staring back in this direction, following my every move. A female security guard with a wire running out of her blazer and up to her earpiece can't even hide what she's doing behind those Polaroids.
And that's when it hits you. Richard Nixon—unjustified paranoid. Why of course! It all makes sense! Right here, right now.
Anyone else want to dick with Dick's security detail? First duck behind the large tree just west of the department store-bought kit home where Nixon was born in 1913. When the guard looks the other way to see where you went, dart over to the house's north wall opposite the guard perch facing the gravesite. Then scamper over to the front door and whip it open just to be told by the schoolmarm-like old-lady-docent to please exit until the next tour.
Finally inside, my mind drifts back to the early Nixon family timeline in the lobby, which included a copy of young Dick's eighth grade "Autobiorgraphy." He began by saying he lived in a big two-story building with a large fireplace. But, looking at it, the fireplace is tiny and the top floor bedroom is more like a converted attic. Was this really considered a big building in those days, or was Nixon already stretching the truth by grade eight—a skill that would serve him well (and unwell) in politics?
Also on display is a presidential helicopter (it's smaller inside than you might imagine), the East Room reproduction looks reproduction-y and this particular month's visiting display, horses and presidents (enough with the Abigail Fillmore jokes already!), is disappointing.
Much has been written about the Watergate display and how incomplete it is. True enough, the degree of incompleteness is so glaring that it practically renders the whole place deceitful. And that's a shame. It's unlikely that enough truthiness could be pumped into this place to satisfy Dick's most vehement critics; but this facility would warrant landmark status if someone would just crank down the cheerleading a few notches and get real. Who knows? Maybe the arrival of the National Archives, which militantly guards the government documents in its care (the FBI busted Clinton crony Sandy Berger for illegally removing documents from the National Archives), will rub off on the RNL&B overlords.
Meanwhile it's the Nixon memorabilia permanently housed in the main library building that impresses me the most. Everything is organized quite expertly, and no matter how you feel about the bastard he was a major player for much of the last century. That he rose to such a position of height from such humble roots is indeed astonishing. And he's all ours, baby.
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Walking toward the gift shop (half price on books by Newt Gingrich, Hugh Hewitt and the rest of the right-wing rogue's gallery), the blue-blazered docent who'd been so helpful has a question.
"What did you think of the film?" he asks.
"It was great. This whole place is . . . great."
My fellow Americans, let me make this perfectly clear. It is now time for a shower. 18001 Yorba Linda Blvd., Yorba Linda, (714) 993-5075; www.nixonfoundation.org.