Nixon's story, told Nixon's way

Presidential museum depicts a singular view of a roller-coaster era in American politics

August 04, 2002|By Eric Noland | By Eric Noland,LOS ANGELES DAILY NEWS

Just steps from the exit, Richard Nixon gets the last word.

He's on a TV screen in a small theater, responding to the disembodied voice of a supposed interviewer. Maybe it's assumed that the visitor to the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace, in Yorba Linda, Calif., having navigated a dozen exhibit areas -- concluding with a dimly lighted hall devoted to the abject darkness of Watergate -- might have a few questions at this point.

So there is Nixon, obviously filmed late in his life, brushing aside, explaining away and at one point openly laughing about such petty nuisances as wiretaps of political enemies, his secret office tape recordings and the actions of the infamous White House "plumbers."

Your library, your prerogative.

Whatever your political perspective, a visit to the Nixon Library near Los Angeles is well worth your while. As its visitor guide declares, it provides "a fascinating journey through history" -- albeit reflecting one man's perspective and encompassing one of the most sordid chapters in American presidential history.

Nixon, the only American president to resign, stepped down Aug. 8, 1974, just days after the House Judiciary Committee recommended articles of impeachment against him for conspiracy to obstruct justice, abuse of power and refusal to comply with its subpoenas. He died in 1994 at age 81.

Simple birthplace

One of the most heartening elements of the nine-acre complex is the simple home in which Nixon was born, in 1913, and spent the first nine years of his life. It still occupies its original site, where Nixon's father, Frank, tended a lemon grove. (The family later moved to Whittier, where Frank ran a gas station and general store.)

As you walk through the small clapboard structure and hear that the four sons bunked in an upstairs room, "two to a bed," it's remarkable to think that someone of such simple means and no family connections could rise to the highest office in the country just over 30 years ago.

Exhibit areas in the library trace the genesis of Nixon's political career: his victory in a local congressional race (1946), his zeal as a member of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, his mud-slinging victory over Helen Gahagan Douglas for one of California's U.S. Senate seats (1950), and his selection as vice presidential running mate to Dwight D. Eisenhower (1952).

A vintage TV set plays a grainy, black-and-white tape of Nixon's famous "Checkers" speech, when he defended himself against charges that powerful backers had created a slush fund for his use. One contribution, he says in the speech, was a cocker spaniel, "and Tricia, the 6-year-old, named it 'Checkers.' "

As Nixon defends his lifestyle, you might have to suppress a chuckle as he declares that wife Pat "doesn't have a mink coat, but she does have a respectable, Republican cloth coat."

TV again figures prominently in Nixon's career at a subsequent exhibit devoted to his unsuccessful bid for the presidency against John F. Kennedy in 1960. The first of the televised debates of that campaign is aired, and Nixon, who declined to have television makeup applied, exhibits a 5 o'clock shadow and repeatedly mops sweat from his face with a handkerchief. As Nixon fidgets and stammers, Kennedy appears suave and self-assured.

The commentary hastens to add, however, that Nixon excelled in a subsequent televised debate and, besides, it's doubtful voters' minds were swayed by the first one anyway.

From protest to peace

There's a lot of that in this library. The word "spin" only recently gained favor in American political nomenclature. It might be more appropriate to characterize this institution's take on Nixon's career as "gloss."

The illegal extension of the Vietnam War into Cambodia in 1970 is referred to as "unannounced bombing runs." The killing of four Kent State University students by National Guardsmen during a subsequent protest includes a preface about objects thrown by the mob, and the vague words: "Tragically, in the ensuing panic, shots rang out."

In the Watergate room, a reference to Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein includes the words "in their zeal to create a Watergate story." Create?

Also in the Watergate room, after you hear the "smoking gun" tape -- in which Nixon encourages an aide to have the CIA tell the FBI to back off its investigation for national security reasons -- a commentary quickly notes that Nixon called off the dogs two weeks later (as if that absolves him of wrongdoing).

Exhibits at the library also deal with more upbeat subjects, including Nixon's achieving a thaw with China (he was the first president to visit that country), his pursuit of detente in the Soviet Union and his withdrawal of troops from Vietnam (though it took more than four years). There is a poignant look at prisoners of war who returned from Vietnam on Nixon's watch in 1973.

A highlight of the library grounds is the First Lady's Garden, which is richly planted in roses.

When you go

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