At remade Nixon Library, finding parallels to today isn’t tricky

The Richard Nixon Library and Museum, reopened last October after a renovation, these days seems even more contemporary.
The Richard Nixon Library and Museum, reopened last October after a renovation, these days seems even more contemporary. Photo by David Allen

Richard Nixon, the ultimate comeback kid, is trending. Google “Trump Nixon” and you got 26.1 million results Friday, up 1.3 million from the day before.

Comparisons between the 45th and 37th presidents abound: Both disliked the press, chafed against the Establishment, distrusted the FBI, nursed grievances, railed against their enemies, complained about witch hunts and fired officials investigating their administrations.

After Trump sent FBI Director James Comey packing, a cheeky tweet from the Nixon Library went viral: “FUN FACT: President Nixon never fired the Director of the FBI. #FBIDirector #notNixonian.”

(The library clarified, however, that Nixon did order the firing of the Watergate special prosecutor, and that the attorney general and deputy attorney general both quit rather than carry out the order. And the National Archives apologized for the tweet.)

With the Tricky One in the headlines again, this seemed like the perfect time to leave the Inland Valley for a place that is unquestionably Nixonian: the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.

Opened in 1990, the library was built on a former citrus grove around the modest Yorba Linda home where the future president was born — possible first words: “I am not a daughter” — and spent his first nine years.

I’d been there once, 20 years ago, with two friends on our way to a wedding. They remember little more than the lush grounds; all I can summon up are the bronzes of Nixon with various foreign leaders and a small, defensive Watergate exhibit. (To be fair, that’s more than I remember about the wedding.)

When the National Archives took control from the private Nixon Foundation in 2007, the Watergate section was beefed up, and the entire museum got a $15 million overhaul completed last October.

There’s no pussyfooting around: The 12-minute introductory film begins with Watergate and Nixon’s resignation.

“He was ground down by his own flaws,” one commentator opines.

Which president is this about again?

“He was the biggest loser in American politics,” Pat Buchanan, a former adviser, says as footage of Nixon’s first inauguration plays, “and here he was taking the oath of office. People could not believe it.”

Disbelief about the man being sworn in? Huh.

To explain the “loser” comment, Nixon had lost the 1960 presidential election and then the 1962 California governor’s race, after which he told reporters they wouldn’t have him to kick around anymore (not that he was bitter) because that would be his last press conference. Thus his astonishing comeback in 1968.

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He is the only native Californian ever elected president, Reagan having been born in Illinois. Pomona, by the way, is where Nixon launched his first three campaigns, all successful: for Congress in 1946, for U.S. Senate in 1949 and as vice presidential nominee in 1952.

The museum proper begins with a bang, in the middle of the story: Not Nixon’s birth in far-away 1913 but in the turbulence of the 1960s — protests and political assassinations — culminating in the election of a law-and-order president.

From there you can step into a replica of the Nixon Oval Office, and even wander around it and sit behind the desk, unlike at other roped-off presidential libraries.

Anti-war protests, Kent State and Vietnam are covered, as is the Apollo program. I picked up a green rotary phone and heard Nixon’s conversation with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin from the moon July 20, 1969.

We learn about the anti-communist’s visit to China and about his domestic achievements, which include creating the Environmental Protection Agency, signing the Clean Air Act and Title IX into law, ending the draft and lowering the voting age to 18.

We see examples of Nixon in popular culture, including, yes, the Nixon-Elvis photo that had its own moment a few years ago. You don’t get much insight into why so many people hated him, but the detailed look at the four years it took to extricate ourselves from the war provides a clue.

The Watergate exhibit is the most detailed, covering multiple acts of political sabotage against perceived political enemies and leakers even before the break-in.

You can press buttons on a schematic of the White House to see the location of microphones in Nixon’s taping system — has anyone from the current administration asked for a copy? — and listen to suspicious clicks that probably show erasures in the notorious 18 1/2-minute gap in one Watergate tape.

Facing impeachment, Nixon resigned Aug. 9, 1974. You can exit the museum and tour the helicopter that brought him back to California in disgrace, and even pose for a photo on the step giving a full-arm wave goodbye.

Nixon Foundation spokesman Joe Lopez told me the museum’s revamp “allows people to think critically” about Nixon’s legacy.

I asked what he thought of Nixon making so much news in 2017.

“Having a president who’s been out of office more than 40 years, and deceased for more than 20 years, and he’s still drawing that kind of attention, we enjoy that,” Lopez said with a smile. “It brings visitors in.”

I was one. And the museum provided plenty of food for thought.

Do the parallels between Trump and Nixon do more discredit to Trump or Nixon, and why? Discuss.

Is history repeating itself? Maybe, maybe not. If it is, it’s certainly more compressed this time around. Watergate lasted two years. The main points so far of Comeygate occurred within eight days. It’s like Watergate as a Vine loop.

Reflecting on his life in 1990, Nixon said, “It’s a long way from Yorba Linda to the White House.”

As a visit to the Nixon Library this very strange spring shows, the distance may not be so great.

David Allen writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday, which are too close together. Contact dallen@scng.com or 909-483-9339, visit insidesocal.com/davidallen, like davidallencolumnist on Facebook and follow @davidallen909 on Twitter.

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About the Author

David Allen

Reach the author at dallen@scng.com or follow David on Twitter: davidallen909.