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Where the Man Began 

The Nixon birthplace at resignation-plus-25

Wednesday, Aug 18 1999
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Photo by Ted Soqui

You notice the "Award-Winning Karaoke" parlor here, the smiling teens waving "Free Carwash for Jesus" placards there. But there’s no sign of Dick Nixon — usually termed our nation’s "most controversial president" — whose most flattering biographer to date concluded: "It is sometimes difficult to see where the cynical politician in him ends, and where the visionary side of his character begins."

Considering author Jonathan Aitken’s own reservations, could even Yorba Linda — the high-octane-Republican Orange County city of 60,000 that advertises its "Lush Life" — be ashamed of his birthplace? Not hardly: Turn around and come back, and there’s a huge notice for the Library and Birthplace right on the town’s eastern boundary.

However lacking in guideposts, the sprawling national monument was crowded Saturday: The usual $5.95 entrance charge had been waived. It was exactly 25 years (plus five days) since Air Force One turned into a plain old civilian flight in midair, prior to dropping off America’s first presidential dropout on California soil. And, marking the occasion, something quite special was happening here: the unveiling of a new monument to the former president.

From outside, the Nixon Library looks like the Malibu Civic Center, with an expensive tile roof. And acres of rose plantings. "This one’s called ‘Betty Boop,’" a red-blazered docent says of a mottled scarlet-and-orange hybrid. "That’s because it changes color." Am I really hearing this about the most black-and-white character in animation history? Different realities, I think. Dick Nixon was always about those.

You can walk through the roses to get to the presidential birthplace. It is a narrow little cream-colored house in what you might call Off-Craftsman style. Nixon’s father built it. This primal fact was a big deal for our 37th president. Over the years, in several versions, Dick Nixon described thus his origins: First my father built the house and then he made me in it. For the building, at least, Old Frank Nixon probably used a mail-order kit to build the house; perhaps he bought the geometrically paned windows from some local supplier.

What most impresses you about the place is its shipshapeness. It’s as densely packed as a cruising sloop with tiny, interlocking living spaces. An upstairs bedroom, which slept up to four boys (two siblings didn’t survive childhood), jammed under the shallow eaves, is reached by a stair like an enclosed stepladder. There’s a smaller downstairs bedroom for Mom and Dad; a living room, with fireplace, centered on Dad’s rocking chair. A sewing room; a kitchen; a pantry.

No dining room. No comfortable family gathering place: nowhere in the house — in those pre-TV days — to socialize, to get to know or even to come to terms with one another. Did the youngsters grab their food off that little kitchen table that looks barely big enough for four? Did all the family cram around it for holidays, or weather the outdoors at a picnic table? The dining table centers most American homes. There’s an upright piano, but this domicile looks as if it revolved around Dad’s rocking chair. At least, until his little citrus farm went broke, and Frank had to move his family from Yorba Linda to Whittier.

Biographers tend to bear down on Nixon père as an unloving parent who beat his boys (Nixon’s Quaker mother, Hannah, is often described as saintly, but in pictures she looks tougher than Dad). In the library, you see the Nixon father of 49 years ago; his son’s now a famous congressman, but he’s still glowering across the counter of his Whittier grocery store with its bins of fresh produce and white refrigerated cases of meat and milk. Frank Nixon looks like the kind of grocer who’d say, "Touch those pears, kid, and I’ll wham you one" as you walked in the door. Which, accordingly, would have been seldom. That Pop Nixon’s storekeeping career was uncrowned with affluence is not to wonder. He may have taught Richard a favorite slogan — "Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser" — but the fact the elder Nixon had always to live with was that he was nobody’s winner.

 

The house this morning is full of young Marines in crisp civvies, enduring a special tour. Later, they’ll suit up to be the honor guard at the official unveiling, in the library, of sculptor Robert Berks’ new bronze bust of Nixon. The library is nearly as full of stout, gray men in dark neckties and blazers as the birthplace is full of Marines.

But a tall, lank man with a beard is directing the action around the new, virgin-bronze statue that shines like gold. He’s helping the lighting crew make the most of his work’s appearance in the indoor midday sunshine. He wears a bright-gold tie pulled down from the collar of his expensive, well-worn shirt. He’s Robert Berks, sculptor of public figures. He did the famous memorial bust of JFK, a statue of Einstein that stands in Jerusalem and at the United Nations in New York. He’s also done a bust of Pope Paul VI and over 300 other commissions.

"But there are still far too many people for me to portray," says the 77-year-old sculptor. He shows me an array of some 60 Nixon photos he used to create the statue. He intended to show the president, he says, "as many different people saw him." Four months of hard work later, here we are: a jaggedly handsome, just-about-life-size Nixon in his early 40s, displaying far more teeth than I can recall him ever flashing in public.

It turns out that Berks knew Nixon personally, during his days as a carryover LBJ appointee to the National Endowment for the Arts. Berks, a Democrat, was a skeptic. But he says that Nixon impressed him by raising the endowment from the annual $13 million under LBJ and the Kennedys to $64 million. "An extremely complex person," Berks says. We ponder the phenomenon of the "Good Nixon" who got away with things the likes of which Bill Clinton would never even dare propose: the China initiative, the Environmental Protection Act, the near-miss guaranteed-annual-income act. I recall that Nixon had claimed that his presidential role model was activist Woodrow Wilson, the historic antithesis of Ronald Reagan’s do-nothing Calvin Coolidge. By his own lights, Nixon was descended from the liberal, not the conservative, tradition.

But then, there was everything else — the attenuated Vietnam War, the genocide-inducing bombings of Cambodia, the Allende coup and the subsequent gory decade of Washington-condoned fascism in much of Latin America. Not to mention Nixon’s attempt to "bring the war home" — COINTELPRO, the 1970 White House plan to retaliate against all of America for the doings of its anti-war activists. And the Enemies List. Watergate. Disgrace. Disaster. Self-termination.

The frank and amiable tone of the library’s displays suggests that a positive re-evaluation of Nixon is overdue. Maybe. But almost 2,000 years later, people still generally fail to appreciate the enlightened touch that Nero brought to Roman imperial policy.

There’s no inscription on the statue’s plinth. It might well bear the epigraph that Thomas Macaulay wrote on Lord Francis Bacon, a similarly complex public figure of the 17th century:

"There was no man equally qualified to render great and lasting services to mankind. But . . . there was not a heart more set on things which no man ought to suffer to be necessary to his happiness — on things which can be obtained only by the sacrifice of integrity and honor."

As the Marines fall in for the ceremony, I finally ask Berks a variation of the old Esquire magazine question: "Why is this man smiling?"

Berks answers: "He’s smiling, but look at those eyes: See what’s happening in there."

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