YORBA LINDA, CALIF. -- It was six weeks before the opening of the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace in this churning, rapidly growing Orange County suburb. With concrete still pouring and walls still bare, Executive Director Hugh Hewitt could not resist one more small adjustment in a monument to a former president who is, after all, still reinventing himself.
"This is the Domestic Pavilion," said library Public Affairs Director Kevin Cartwright, ushering a visitor into the chamber where Nixon's little-known domestic successes would be displayed before library-goers began to wallow in the huge Watergate Room down the hall.
Hewitt, an environmental attorney fond of some of the Nixon-signed legislation spotlighted here, winced at the word "pavilion" -- it was too gilt-edged and touristy for the point he and his patron, the 37th president of the United States, wanted to make. "I'm going to change it, Kevin," Hewitt said. "Call it the Domestic Policy Room."
Memories of U.S. presidents usually acquire a crust after a couple of decades, with popular legend and image locked into such familiar shapes that historians can only nibble around their edges, pleading for the major reassessment that in most cases never comes. Not so Richard Nixon, whose reputation is forever evolving.
When Nixon was born here in 1913, in a small wooden house now part of the library site, the area was mostly planted with orange and lemon trees. Today Yorba Linda spreads toward the Riverside County border in a feverish outpouring of new houses and shopping centers. Redevelopment, reassessment, rehabilitation -- and all the other re's -- are gospel, and everyone seems eager to see what Nixon and young acolytes like Hewitt have done to shed light on a career that seems, in the popular mind, to have ended in one of the great political catastrophes of all time.
A tour of the library as it prepares for its July 19 dedication ceremony, with Hewitt's earnest and teasing guidance, reveals elements of what may become one of the great sleeper entertainments of the 1990s: a Disneyland for political junkies, with endless diversions for both Nixon's haters and his admirers.
One exhibit can be mentioned out of order so as not to prolong the suspense: The Watergate Room, a long chamber still devoid of exhibits near the end of the tour, is the largest room in the library dedicated to a single subject.
Visitors absorbing the long walls of Watergate photos and texts and memorabilia will also be invited to hear four of the most incriminating White House tapes, including the famous June 23, 1972, "smoking gun" tape, in which Nixon's connection to the illegal coverup becomes clear.
Hewitt permitted himself a small smile of triumph -- one more quick jab at the forces who expect the worst of Nixon -- before underlining the point. "People are surprised that so much space is dedicated to Watergate," he said, "but it is not enough, and the whole museum would not be enough for Nixon's critics."
Hewitt, who was preparing for his freshman year at Harvard the summer Nixon resigned the presidency, said Watergate is history still in the making. "Revisionism's first wave is just hitting the beach," he said.
There will be space to present the issue from every angle, but when asked what a visitor might learn, Hewitt had a quick answer: "They are going to learn Nixon's side of the story."
The Spanish-style, $21 million building spreads over a nine-acre site among tract houses and supermarkets convenient to the Orange Freeway and the Imperial Highway. There are parking spaces for 260 cars and 10 buses, enough to serve up to 1 million visitors a year, and the convention bureau expects heavy traffic from vacationers tired of the sugary delights of Disneyland, seven miles to the southwest. This will be the only presidential library built and managed without federal dollars, giving Nixon staff the flexibility to offer even nighttime sessions for conventioneers who want to drink the heady wine of history, revisionist and otherwise.
Hewitt seemed unconcerned that so much remained undone so close to opening. The decorative fountain in front, at the corner of Eureka Street and Yorba Linda Boulevard, looks like a huge concrete doughnut. "It's an MX missile site," Hewitt said. "The library will be well defended."
The visitor enters a large foyer, grateful for air conditioning in one of the county's driest, hottest corners, and then fixes on an initial Disney touch. A huge digital clock counts down the number of minutes before the next showing of the introductory movie -- a 25-minute tribute to the former president, still being edited. The library's 293-seat theater will be used for scholarly conferences in the evenings.
Those waiting for the film can study exhibits of other famous personalities and events of the Nixon years, or browse in the gift shop, which plans to stock a new eight-volume set of Nixon's collected works, plus books by his younger daughter, Julie Nixon Eisenhower, and her husband, David Eisenhower, the family's two other writers.
Next on the tour after the film is a winding journey through Nixonland, full of odd trinkets -- like the typewriter used as evidence in the Alger Hiss "Pumpkin Papers" espionage case -- and repeated video reminders that this was the American president whose career most closely paralleled, in both triumph and defeat, the rise of television.
In some high-ceilinged rooms visitors may stop and ponder some of the more unusual exhibits -- a hall of world leaders, where bronze-tone statues of Charles de Gaulle, Mao Zedong, Golda Meir, Nikita Khrushchev and others sit or stand in cocktail party poses; or the Foreign Affairs Room, where Nixon's "Kitchen Debate" will be explained within an onion-dome structure resembling St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow.
Other spaces, like the 1968 corridor recalling assassination, war, protest and Nixon's election as president, have low ceilings that, the library's designers say, subtly encourage the visitor to move through steadily, with few pauses.
"We're taking a career the better part of six decades long and collapsing it into 14,000 square feet," Hewitt said. "That means a rapid pace."
Library visitors may stroll past a reflecting pond to the little farmhouse, built by his father, where Nixon was born and which has never been open to the public. The house contains the original family piano and other heirlooms, as well as a recording of Nixon reminiscing about his boyhood.
Exhibits of his early political career include a 1949 wood-sided Ford Mercury station wagon like the one the young Nixon used to make fiery tailgate speeches questioning the patriotism and loyalty of Democrat Helen Gahagan Douglas in his successful 1950 U.S. Senate campaign. But most of the library celebrates the television era.
His 1952 "Checkers" speech, one of the first uses of national television to short-circuit a political scandal, will be mentioned. Visitors will see several long segments of the four 1960 presidential debates, the famous first debate in which John F. Kennedy's youthful appearance registered so well, and the following three in which, in Hewitt's words, Nixon "soundly thrashed" his opponent.
The Vietnam War will be presented in a mock-up of a 1960s lime-green living room -- a sign of its place in U.S. history as the first televised "living-room war." Portions of Nixon's "Silent Majority" speech will play on the television set.
Other unexpected touches include a mock-up of the Lincoln Sitting Room, rather than the Oval Office, so popular in other presidential libraries. Nixon did most of his speech-writing there, with the air conditioning up high and a fire in the fireplace. The National Archives, which has some say over safety conditions in buildings that borrow state gifts for display, has raised some questions about the gas-fed fire. "We have to revamp the exhaust system," Hewitt said.
The controversy over Nixon's control of his presidential papers led Congress to insist they remain with the National Archives, but copies will be available here, as well as originals of papers from Nixon's pre- and post-White House years. Scholars may work in the green-carpeted library basement, to be equipped with modern video and microfilm equipment.
There is a pleasant room remembering Pat Nixon, expected to make her first public appearance in more than 10 years at the formal opening ceremony in July. President Bush and former presidents Reagan and Ford are also expected, although former president Carter has declined to appear, citing a previous commitment.
Television appropriately provides the soaring finale -- a chance to ask Nixon's electronic self, the only Nixon most Americans know, any of 400 preset questions. A visitor may narrow the choice on a touch-screen video system, then sit and watch himself, through video sleight-of-hand, ask the man a question and get an answer, pulled from an assortment of old news clips, some previously televised interviews and 10 hours of new interviews conducted specially for what the library calls its Presidential Forum.
When the library opens to the public July 20, Hewitt predicted, visitors will be surprised at "how entertaining it is," and, he added, explaining his mission one more time, at "how much of the Nixon record they had never known or had forgotten."