I know the day must surely come when a U.S. president is born not in some rustic farmhouse or small-town cottage, but in a towering urban apartment building. Still, I'm not quite ready for guided tour of a commander in chief's childhood home that, shouted over the din of traffic, begins, "Up there, on the 16th floor . . ."
I still want my presidential mythology quaint, which is exactly what I got when I drove from San Diego to Yorba Linda to visit the Richard Nixon Birthplace. Of course I also got sleek and slick at the adjacent Richard Nixon Library, a marble tribute to the more presentable facts about one of America's most controversial presidents. As a bonus, I got a splendid gift shop that sells hand-painted, porcelain Nixon birthplace Christmas ornaments, folk art birthplace birdhouses, "Pat for First Lady" campaign buttons (pink, of course) and all manner of Nixon-and-Elvis effluvia, from T-shirts to wristwatches to coasters. The shop claims a higher sales volume per square foot than Bloomingdale's, a fact that may tell us more about America today than any of the various Nixon-penned tomes on sale there, too.
In short, the RNL&B is worth every penny of the $5.95 admission.
I arrived at the complex on a glorious Sunday afternoon and immediately got in line to tour the little farmhouse where Nixon was born in his parents' bedroom on Jan. 9, 1913. There was a 20-minute wait, during which two women behind me argued about Bob Dole's charisma quotient.
The house is so small that only 10 to 12 people are allowed in at a time. And because it was just an hour before closing, the docent described the interior with the speed of an auctioneer. So rushed were we that we weren't allowed to hear the much-anticipated audiotape of Nixon himself describing the charms of hearth, home and childhood. Judging from the transcript I obtained later, this was too bad.
The house was built in 1912 almost entirely by Nixon's father, Frank, in the center of the family's citrus groves. On the right as you enter is a brick fireplace flanked by a straight-backed settee and a straight-backed chair. (No wonder Nixon was such a stiff; he never got to flop on a comfy couch.) To the left is the family's upright Crown piano, along with Nixon's clarinet, saxophone, accordion and violin, all acquired because his mother, Hannah, felt he had a major musical muse.
"I have often thought that if there had been a good rap group around in those days, I might have chosen a career in music instead of politics," Nixon says on the audio tour. Of all the revisionist history presented here, this conceit is the most boggling: Richard Milhous Nixon as Snoop Doggy Dick.
To the left of the entrance just past the piano is the aforementioned parental bedroom. And though Nixon entered the world in that very chamber, our hero and his three brothers actually slept in a shared attic that remains off-limits to tourists.
The dining table in the living room's far left corner is set with a lace cloth and what is clearly the family's "good" china; a nearby desk is topped by an ancient typewriter. Knickknacks adorn built-in shelves. But the rooms that best evoke early-20th-century rural America are on the other side of a narrow passage: Hannah's sewing room, pantry and kitchen, outfitted with tools of the various domestic arts, the dearest to son Richard's heart being her baking.
All too soon, the tour ended, and my group was hustled outside. I decided to wander the spectacular gardens and take time to smell at least a few of the 1,400 rosebushes, including those bred and named for first ladies Pat Nixon, Barbara Bush and, yes, even Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Nearby are the black granite gravestones of the 37th president and his long-suffering wife.
"The greatest honor history can bestow is the title of peacemaker," reads the inscription on his marker.
"Even if people can't speak your language, they can tell if you have love in your heart," reads hers.
There are other outdoor attractions on the nine-acre site: Nixon's official limousine, used by presidents Johnson through Carter, and the white gazebo under which daughter Tricia married Edward Finch Cox at the White House in 1971.
With time running out, I entered the library. Visitors are encouraged to first watch a 28-minute film called "Never Give Up: Richard Nixon in the Arena." I skipped it and went directly the the "Road to the Presidency" exhibit that traces his rise from the U.S. House to the Senate, where he teamed with Sen. Joe McCarthy and lawyer Roy Cohn to ferret out communists in government. Next came his selection as Dwight Eisenhower's vice president (1952-1960) his famous 1960 TV debate with John Kennedy, the so-called "wilderness years" after he failed to win the presidency and the California governorship, his White House victories of 1968 and 1972 and his historic tour of China.
Which brings us, of course, to Watergate, the scandal that started with the Democratic Party headquarters burglary and ultimately revealed a Byzantine web of illegal campaign fund-raising and clandestine activities that forced Nixon to resign on Aug. 9, 1974, to avoid impeachment. Of course, that's just the view of what Vice President Spiro Agnew used to call "nattering nabobs of negativism."
The folks who wrote the text for this display offer a different spin: "At the time, commentators sought to portray Watergate strictly as a morality play, a struggle between right and wrong, truth and falsehood, good and evil. Given the benefit of time, it is now clear that Watergate was an open and bloody political battle fought for the highest stakes, with no holds barred."
As Nixon's gravestone emphasizes, the man was keenly interested in foreign policy. One of the more surreal sights is the library's Hall of World Leaders, with 10 life-size bronze figures -- including Churchill, Mao, Golda Meir, de Gaulle and Lenin -- seated or standing as if at some great social summit. You can press the name of each on a screen to hear a biography and a laudatory quote about Nixon.
The Ambassador of Goodwill Gallery is a shrine to Pat Nixon and includes several of her gowns and wraps worn while she was first lady. Disappointingly absent is her infamous "respectable Republican cloth coat" that Nixon bitterly mentioned in his 1952 Checkers speech.
All too soon it was time to leave, and I'd never even gotten downstairs to the actual library to peruse Nixon's congressional and vice presidential papers. About 40 million pages of White House documents, tapes and photos are missing, however, having been seized by the federal government during Watergate. These are still in the process of being released -- slowly and against the continuing resistence of lawyers for Nixon's estate -- to the American people.
As we left the building, a caterer was rushing to put out centerpieces for a party that would begin shortly after the doors closed to the public. This is one of the several ways that the complex, which cost $25 million -- in private funds -- to build, generates income. You can rent the lobby for an after-hours soiree and book the garden for a wedding. Alas, the presidential limousine is not available for prom transport.
In short, the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace is a masterstroke of marketing and spin, a shrine to the unstoppable procession of free-market capitalism, a mini-theme park dedicated to an imagined America where the message is tightly controlled, endlessly upbeat and perpetually available on audiotape. The spinning continues, but out back, one suspects, Richard Nixon is at rest.
The Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace (18001 Yorba Linda Blvd., Yorba Linda, Calif. 92686, 714-993-3393, http://www.chapman .edu/nixon) is a 45-minute drive southeast of downtown Los Angeles and 90 minutes north of San Diego. Open daily (except Thanksgiving and Christmas) from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday. Admission is $5.95.
Annie Groer, a Reliable Source columnist for The Post, has covered five presidential campaigns.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company
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