Nixon a product of California returns home

April 28, 1994|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Sun Staff Correspondent

YORBA LINDA, CALIF — YORBA LINDA, Calif. -- He planned his funeral as he plotted his comeback -- with great care for how history would treat him. In choosing California as his burial site, Richard M. Nixon was making a statement.

"He was coming home for the last time, and he wanted the simple stuff," a longtime aide, Col. Jack Brennan, said while standing outside the Nixon library. "He didn't want Arlington, didn't want a big thing at the Rotunda. In the mid-1970s, before this place was built, he originally wanted to be buried in a cemetery near here. And he told me, 'I want a simple wooden casket.' "

Californians who remember Mr. Nixon fondly -- and many of the 40,000 who waited to view his flag-draped coffin -- shared with him a conviction: that because of who he was and where he came from, the 37th president was never embraced by the Ivy Leaguers, the Eastern press, the moneyed liberals or the Washington political establishment.

These forces, goes the legend, engineered Mr. Nixon's paranoia -- and his demise. As political historian Garry Wills has pointed out, Alger Hiss, the upper-crust State Department official accused by Mr. Nixon of being a Communist, was a perjurer. And Dwight D. Eisenhower was trying to maneuver Mr. Nixon off the Republican ticket in 1952 before the "Checkers" speech. And John F. Kennedy's 1960 victory was tainted by evidence of vote fraud.

But Richard Nixon was already Richard Nixon before any of these events happened. And the seeds of his character -- the good and the bad -- are here, in California where he was buried yesterday.

Many politicians exaggerate the humbleness of their origins; Mr. Nixon was even poorer than he seemed.

When Mr. Nixon was born in 1913, his father, Frank, was unemployed, trying to launch the lemon-grove business on the property where the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace now sits. That business failed. In the process, his father sold a portion of their arid land. Oil was later discovered on that tract.

Today, Yorba Linda is a relatively affluent middle-class suburb of stucco houses with swimming pools and strip shopping malls that have hip establishments like "Pizza Workout."

In Mr. Nixon's day, it was a hardscrabble place, hit hard by the Depression. The charming clapboard house Americans saw on television last night was not so charming when it came -- in a kit -- from Sears.

Mr. Nixon's main sentiment about Yorba Linda was wanting to leave. In his acceptance speech at the 1968 Republican convention, in a rare revealing passage, Mr. Nixon spoke of lying in bed and hearing the Sante Fe train whistle as it headed to Whittier and the world beyond.

"I see another child," Mr. Nixon said of himself. "He hears the train go by at night and dreams of faraway places he would like to go."

Mr. Nixon was 81 when he died. Almost everyone who knew him as a boy is gone. But here on his family grounds, even though everything else has changed, a question lingers: Couldn't someone have made a difference in young Mr. Nixon's life?

Bryce Harlow, a Nixon adviser, once suggested that "somebody . . . a sweetheart, a parent, a dear friend,"must have hurt young Mr. Nixon so badly that "he never got over it and never trusted anybody again."

Henry A. Kissinger once observed that this lack of trust in people was the only barrier between Mr. Nixon and greatness.

Mr. Nixon himself seemed in later years to link his deep insecurities to his friendships -- or lack of them. Children can be insensitive, and the young Mr. Nixon was not only starved for affection but was physically awkward as well.

"What starts the process, really, are laughs and slights and snubs when you are a kid," Mr. Nixon once confided to his aide, Ken Clawson.

Again, all the themes that would later make -- and break -- Mr. Nixon were evident early on in California. In his first campaign here, against Democratic congressman Jerry Voorhis, Lieutenant Nixon wore Navy whites and engaged in a campaign that critics have said was a classic example of Red-baiting.

This style was much in evidence when Mr. Nixon unseated U.S. Sen. Helen Gahagan Douglas, a New Deal Democrat. Mr. Nixon's grievance may have been that she had family money -- he mentioned it bitterly to friends -- but he implied she was a Communist sympathizer.

It was here, and not in Washington, that Mr. Nixon learned dirty tricks. Its inventors never sought copyrights, but there were practitioners in both parties in California.

Some of the more innocent ones were carried out by the fraternities to influence campus elections at the University of Southern California (not Mr. Nixon's school; he graduated from Whittier College). These tricks, which included spying on your opponent and writing phony letters on the opponent's stationery, would later be imported from USC to the Nixon White House by several of Mr. Nixon's top aides.

Mr. Nixon's first enemies -- and ghosts -- were from here. More than 20 years ago, state Rep. John G. Schmitz, an arch-conservative Republican -- also from Orange County -- was asked what he thought of Mr. Nixon's going to China.

"I don't mind his going," Mr. Schmitz quipped. "It's his coming back I object to."

This week Mr. Nixon came back, for good, and there's nothing any of his enemies, real or imagined, can do about the attention he's getting. He came home, to be buried in the state he once wanted to flee and on land his dad farmed, hoping, like generations of Californians, to make it big.

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