Friday, February 18, 2011

Nixon Gratia Nixon

The end of innocence?

A motto for the ages

House in background; they added the pool later

That ought to hold him down

Wit' de original Rasta mon

The Joker and the King

Azusa, California

Friday, February 18, 2011

Nixon. What else is there to say? For our generation that single name evokes so many memories of the guy we loved to hate--of the guy the whole nation loved to hate, even as they paradoxically re-elected him. I think it was his campaign slogan that did it: Vote for Nixon in '72, Don't Change Dicks in the Middle of a Screw. At least that ruthlessly obtained victory led to his downfall, assisted by the one thing he couldn't do anything about. You can make yourself President of the United States but you can't make yourself lovable.

This is the land of Nixon. He was born in Yorba Linda, about 25 miles from here, and grew up and went to college in Whittier, even closer. My Nixon experience covered two days. On Wednesday, at my brother's suggestion, I went to Whittier College to see some artifacts from the man's public life. Up on the third floor of the school library I found a small locked room called the Nixon Conference Room. I went down and asked the student at the front desk if there was any chance I could look inside the conference room, that I'd heard there were some interesting things there. In truth, I didn't know what was in there. She said she didn't think so, but then went back into an office and after a time a middle aged man came out and told me he could take me up for a quick tour.

He punched in the lock code and we entered a conference room of about fifteen by twenty feet. Across one wall were a few glass cases filled with gifts Nixon had received in his official capacity when he was Vice President--a gold watch from the king of Saudi Arabia, various silver bowls, ceremonial daggers, a box with a picture of the Kremlin on it he'd gotten when he went to Moscow to visit Khruschev. While I was viewing the stuff the librarian, a very nice fellow named Joe, proceeded to tell me a story, most of which I confess I've forgotten, about how these things came to be there in Whittier rather than in the custody of the National Archives and at the Nixon Museum in Yorba Linda. Now I'm sorry I didn't pay better attention.

It was getting late when I emerged from the library, but my appetite was whetted for Nixon stuff, and I determined to go the next morning down to Yorba Linda to the Presidential Birthplace, Museum, and Library. Allow me to switch now to the present tense as I transcribe my notes from that visit.

Thursday, February 17, 2011. 11:15 a.m. It feels warmer down here in Orange County than it did up in Azusa. It seems to be a transitional spot between the lusher greater LA area and the desert of the Coachella Valley. It was a breezy and painless ride down the 57 freeway and took only about forty minutes, a blink of an eye for virtually any trip in southern California. It rained all day yesterday, but this morning the sun is out and the sky is dotted with cumulus clouds. I lock up the car in the huge parking lot and go into the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.

As a lover of presidential trivia, I tend to gravitate toward the more obscure things rather than the obvious and well-known stuff. The Milhous family, Nixon's mother's side, were Germans who moved to England and Ireland. They became Quakers and came to the U.S. in 1729. Much later they continued west to the Quaker city of Whittier, California. The Nixons were Scotch-Irish (which means they were Scots who moved at the invitation of the English government into the northern part of Ireland, in order to Protestantize the island; the result of that little enterprise continues to haunt everyone involved). The Nixons came over here and fought in the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. George Nixon III, Nixon's great-grandfather, was killed in the Battle of Gettysburg and is buried in that cemetery so famously dedicated by Lincoln. These are interesting tidbits, and show that he had a long pedigree on this continent. The Nixons moved from Pennsylvania to Ohio, where Nixon's father was born. Like the Milhouses they eventually made their way to California, where Nixon's father, Frank, bought some property and tried to start a citrus grove. In fact, he bought the very land on which the museum sits, and on which he built, in about 1912, the house Nixon was born in, just outside the museum. The whole farm comprised a little over eight acres, and the museum foundation has acquired it all.

The Nixons were Methodists, but when Frank married Hannah Milhous, somewhere near here, he converted to Quakerism. This exhibit testies to the sturdy rectitude of Nixon's parents, and it goes to show you that seriously flawed characters can emerge from otherwise good backgrounds. The Nixons were Republicans for all the right reasons, going back to the abolitionist sentiments of his forebears. That was before the Republican party ceded its position as the bastion of progressivism, in large part due to the machinations of Richard and his people in developing and cementing the southern strategy, whereby the Republicans took over as the party of white southern racists and ignorant white working people.

Except for the eldest son, Francis (known as Donald), the other four Nixon boys were named for monarchs of England, beginning with Richard--named for the illustrious gay Plantagenet Richard the Lion Hearted--then Harold, Arthur, and Edward.

In 1922, when Nixon was nine, the Nixon citrus farm in Yorba Linda failed, and Frank moved the family up to Whittier, where he ran a grocery store and a gas station. In 1925 Nixon's younger brother Arthur died at about 7 of something related to tuberculosis. The father took the death as a sign of heavenly displeasure because he'd been keeping the gas station open seven days a week, so after Arthur died he closed on Sundays. Little did the old man know that the real sign of divine disapprobation had come in the form of his number two son.

Here's an excerpt from an essay Nixon wrote as a senior at Whittier College, in which he avers that he has chosen to model his life on that of Jesus. "It shall be my purpose in life therefore to follow the religion of Jesus as well as I can. I feel that I must apply His principles to whatever profession I may find myself attached." As if this weren't ironic enough on a stand-alone basis, one of the items in the museum gift store, which I absolutely must buy, is a coffee mug that reads, "What Would Nixon Do?" I kid you not. The other theme the store exploits, again apparently without a trace of self-consciousness, is the famous White House meeting between Nixon and Elvis Presley, the official photo of which has now become almost iconic. Nixon and Elvis shaking hands, the King wearing a cape and gazing at the camera with profoundly stoned eyes. It adorns coffee mugs, shot glasses, computer mouse pads, you name it. And those are their hottest selling items.

After Whittier College, Nixon went on to Duke University Law School to begin the systematic rearrangement of his thinking about the principles of Jesus. He returned to Whittier afterwards to practice law, and met the young school teacher who became his wife. I won't say anything more about Pat except to note that in tax law we have something known as the innocent spouse rule.

Outside I go, to the beautifully landscaped grounds and the reflecting pool, at the end of which is the house where Nixon was born, a small but handsome two-story job with obvious craftsman touches, although those might have been added later. I walk through the house, see the bed where he first protested his infant innocence, the homey living room, the tiny kitchen. Nixon is the first and only true Californian to have been president. Ronald Reagan was a Californian the way Clark Gable and Jack Benny were, Gerald Ford the way the other old farts in Palm Springs are. Nixon was a true home boy, down by law, as it were.

Next I visit Nixon's helicopter--the one that picked him up on the White House lawn after his resignation, where he stood at the door and gave that last awkward wave and double thumbs-up. I mentioned to the docent there that I remember that day as one of the brightest of my youth. She professed shock and disbelief and asked me why, and I told her it was because I couldn't stand Nixon. Again, utter confusion, from a woman about my age, no less. She asked me why I hadn't liked Nixon and I said, "Well, because he was a Republican, a warmonger, vindictive, a liar, a crook ... shall I go on?" She decided to just show me the helicopter instead. Not as nice as Elvis's at Graceland. I walked away even more confused than she. Since when do you have to explain why you don't like Nixon? That used to be taken for granted, like hating Satan or reality TV. What's the world coming to?

Between the house and the museum are the graves of Nixon and his wife. I pause on a bench opposite them just as I have paused so many times amid the tombstones. The inscription on Nixon's slab reads, "The Greatest Honor History Can Bestow Is The Title of Peacemaker," which is true enough in my opinion, although wholly inapposite to the person in front of whom I'm standing at the moment.

I go back into the museum and through a full-scale model of the East Room of the White House. The East Room recreation contains quite a bit of information about the history of the White House, the site of which was chosen by George Washington himself, though he didn't get to live there. This interests me because I'm listening to a recorded biography of Washington right now. Some of the high points in the life of the East Room include Abagail Adams hanging out laundry, James Garfield's sons having a pillow fight while riding velocipedes, and Amy Carter dancing with Mickey Mouse. But the East Room event most germane to this museum was the ceremony on August 9, 1974, in which Nixon bade farewell on the morning of his resignation, beads of whiskey sweat glistening on his forehead and upper lip.

Next door to the East Room is a large special exhibit of expensive gifts Nixon and his family received while he was President, similar to but larger than the one I saw at the Whittier College Library yesterday.

It is the prerogative of every presidential museum to whitewash the life and tenure in office of its subject, and this one is no exception. The Johnson Library in Austin did so and the Gerald Ford Museum in Grand Rapids does too, but both to a lesser extent. As self-serving as LBJ was he appears much more humble in comparison to Nixon based on what I'm seeing here, and Ford is like a veritable lamb among wolves. Holy Big Lie, Batman. There is a pitched battle with the truth going on here, folks. From the senate campaign against Helen Gahagan Douglas, the Checkers speech, two terms as Veep, through the lean years of the sixties and all the way to the ingnominious end of his second term, there's not the slightest attempt to accept responsibility for anything but good stuff. He even spins the bad stuff as good. Probably the low point of this is the convoluted argument in one of the exhibits to the effect that, bolstered by Kissinger's peace negotiations, the South Vietnamese would have won that war after we withdrew our troops if the violent and irresponsible people in the U.S. hadn't been protesting the war, and that the unfair blame Nixon received for Watergate undermined his political power, thus allowing the anti-war enemies of peace in Congress to get the upper hand. Whaaaaa? Sort of like Hitler saying that if it hadn't been for those pesky Allies he would have brought peace to Europe much sooner. Or maybe like one of those moments in the Scooby-Doo cartoons when the villain is unmasked and mutters, "And I would have gotten away with it, if it weren't for those meddling kids and their dog!"

There is a Watergate exhibit section, but it's undergoing renovation. A workman tells me the new version is going to be "more factual" than the old one, since the National Archives has taken over from Nixon himself and his people. I tell the guy I would never come to a place like this to get the facts about Watergate, anyway.

Capping off everything is a half-hour movie, hosted by the tanned and aged Nixon himself. Again, no attempt to accept responsibility for anything except what he characterizes as a series of amazing and world-saving diplomatic victories. At least the guy was utterly consistent to the very end. When I leave the movie the old women in the gift shop ask me how I liked it. I tell them it was one of the most dazzling pieces of propaganda and revisionist history I've ever seen, and would have warmed the heart of Josef Stalin himself. They profess never to have heard such sentiments before.

Outside in the parking lot the sun is shining. I look up into the heavens, searching for some clean truth, and wonder, What Would Nixon Do?


Anonymous said...

Food for thought for Presidents around the world: You can make yourself President of Tunisia, Egypt, F, Y or Z, wherever but you can't make yourself lovable.

Anonymous said...

Excellent writing, can't wait for the book-