Thursday, August 09, 2007

Touchy Feely Nixon

The gift shop is the only refuge for irony, the only acknowledgement of an immense pop culture legacy at the Richard Nixon Library in Yorba Linda -- there, you can buy mugs with photos of the 37th president bowling and a mouse pad showing him shaking hands with Elvis Presley. You can buy little tins of "Presidential Peppermints." You can pick up 50s-style coin purses, those soft rubber yonnis, amusingly sexual, that you open by squeezing open a slot at both ends -- they say "Nixon" in red, white and blue. You can get "Highly scented First Lady Travel Candles" and my favorite, under the label "1600 for men," a jar of "Power Muscle Soak" bath beads bearing the presidential seal.

But as soon as you walk into the cool capacious lobby, past a plaque recognizing creepily echoing names like Mrs. Charles G. (Bebe) Rebozo and Robert Aplanalp, you know that the Nixon library is about warm and fuzzy reconsiderations of history, about rehabilitation, about compassion for the dark and star-crossed Quaker prince.

Disturbingly, it works. Diving into the Nixon story, the way it's told in Yorba Linda, upended my blase hostility, unquestioned since the youthful certainties of my generation's righteous Sevenities indignations about Watergate.

I didn't want to go. I never would have gone there, but for the entreaties of our visitors this week, a pair of lively young academics. One was still in diapers during Watergate and the other wasn't even born. They shamed us into chauffeuring them 40 miles from San Pedro's cool breezes by gently insisting that they "wanted to know." My resistance to submerging into that grim time seemed shallow at best.

As one of my companions noted, all the docents look like Pat Nixon -- they are kind and solicitous and stiffly proper, eager to talk about Pat's rose garden and the reproduction of Nixon's favorite White House space, the cozy Lincoln Room, complete with his favorite slouchy brown chair. There is no mention of the moniker "Tricky Dick," no mention of that infamous First Dog Checkers, no mention of the good cloth coat, no audio clip of "I am not a crook."

Instead, a wall of framed letters from kids after Nixon's 1960 defeat to the much-hated JFK. From eight-year-old Bob Fahlstom of Evanston IL, "I feel very sorry that you lost. I'm a small Republican. I beat my brains out working for you." From Debbie Rathbun, age 7, "Dear Mr. Nixon..."Don't feel too bad, our class voted 23-8 for you. So you're still the president of Room 16." From James G. Mead, Age 7 ("but wish I was 21,"): Dear Nixon Your debates are the best. I think Kennedy is a hothead and he fell you with a lot of balony."

There is a bizarre mural by Hungarian artist Ferenc Daday, ironically a perfect example of a Soviet-era propaganda poster, depicting Nixon at Andau in 1956 after the Hungarian revolution. In the center, Nixon in a beige trench coat pats the head of a small girl who reaches up to him with a sprig of flowers. There are peasants leaning toward him, a triptych of women weeping in the background. The accompanying plaque says that during Nixon's visit, "he stayed up all night riding in a haywagon pulled by a tractor as he accompanied the freedom fighters on their rounds through the countryside to search for others who had escaped the Soviet crackdown."

Weirdly, it's believable. This same man who'd made a name for himself on HUAC, jubilantly nailing that commie Alger Hiss from Whittaker Chamber's pumpkin papers, believed that freedom from Communism was the great good, the all-consuming goal. He had a certain naive purity.

As has been widely noted, the Watergate section itself, remarkably, has been totally torn out. In that hallway, instead, are white walls randomly splashed with olive drab paint, some of it leaving long, morose drips. The exhibit was gutted in March by order of Timothy Naftali, the library's first federal director, a Harvard-trained historian. The action is part of a major change from being a privately run facility — the only modern presidential library not part of the federal system — to an institution run by the National Archives. The federal librarians had long known the earlier Watergate version was a whitewash, and perhaps their new attempt to document the story will wrestle more honorably with truth.

Most powerfully for me, Nixon's tormented guilt and the narrative of his doomed ascent from a struggling rural childhood, makes George W. Bush seem even more banal, more shameful, more infuriating. The library is situated on the 9 acres of Frank Nixon's original homestead -- the house, a small, tidy cottage that looks like something out of Bedford Falls, can be toured, and there's a big California pepper tree that Frank himself planted in about 1912 -- all seemingly part of that hopeful American dream, the hardscrabble Nixon family running their market, hanging together at the death of Richard's little brother Arthur. At his worst, Nixon spoke clearly and passionately, evincing a complex intelligence. His fall is all the more awful because of where he started -- not entitled to anything, not the smug beneficiary of wealth or connection. If you're looking for it, there's a vein of horrific implication about what this means in the Nixon library -- a Horatio Alger story that ends up wrong, a reverse image of a Mr. Smith Goes To Washington tale in which the individual's corruption and failure is unsparingly public and cruel.

Of course he deserved it. But it feels like something different from the cynical and doggedly unapologetic and presumptuous abuses of power at work today in the depressing presidency of Royal George.

" I think Nixon was a sad and pathetic man," one of my young companions remarked on our last swoop through the gift shop. I groaned and reluctantly agreed.

Personally, confronted with those glum walls in the scoured Watergate hallway and what their hard silence implied, even after contemplating the nostalgic Nixon home, even after breathing in the perfume of yellow roses (like an aerosol can in a bathroom, maybe?) I still wanted to deface something, draw a big peace symbol onto the blank whiteness or scrawl, "Nixon lied." I had my hand in my bag, reaching for a pen. My husband stopped me -- for my own good. He was right. I'm pretty sure there were cameras everywhere. Even without the catharsis of graffiti, I had to face the facts, so to speak: the telling of even the darkest history is always changing.


Anonymous said...

In year six of this, the BushCo LLC economy, there's never enough time to respond and contribute properly. Your "backyards" thing from a couple weeks back -- made me so introspective that I never did get around to posting anything. But loved it, nonetheless. Thanks for the memories.

As for Nixon, again introspection, remembrance takes over, you go off on various thought tangents and never get around to posting anything.

But I'm not bitter.

greg rappleye said...

I wonder if "James G. Mead" is the same guy who is now an expert on whales and works at the Smithsonian. He looks to be the right age; though with his smile and beard, he doesn't look much like a Nixon supporter.

Still, people change.

I enjoyed reading this; also the entry on the Avalon Balloom.