Richard Nixon ran for president of the United States three times, carrying Nebraska easily each time, dispatching Democrats John F. Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey and George McGovern in 1960, 1968 and 1972. Of course, Nixon lost the race in 1960 to Kennedy, and his time in office after the two victories was marred by war, protests, scandal and, finally, resignation.
All of this and more is brilliantly displayed in the newly renovated Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, California, Nixon's birthplace. It was first opened in 1990 amid controversy over its location and content. Nixon apparently wanted the library in Durham, North Carolina, home of his law school alma mater, Duke, but that was nixed by protests. Then, San Clemente, California, home of the Western White House while the 37th president was in office, was scrapped after zoning delays. Finally, Nixon and his family settled on Yorba Linda.
The library was closed in 2015 for renovation and reopened in October of last year. At a cost of $15 million, all funded by private donations, the galleries chronicling the life and times of Richard Nixon should not be missed if you are in Southern California. Yorba Linda is in Orange County, about 35 miles from central Los Angeles and close to Long Beach.
In addition to the museum, a visitor can tour the house where he was born in 1913. His father and mother ran a citrus ranch on the land that now houses the presidential library. The family left in 1922 for Whittier, California. In 1948, the Yorba Linda school district bought the house, and the custodian of the later-named Richard Nixon Elementary School lived there. Near the house, the remains of Nixon and his wife, Pat, are interred.
One enters the Nixon Library and Museum to be greeted by an original Norman Rockwell portrait of the former president, hand on chin, a pensive gaze on his face, possibly thinking about what might have been. If you discount the Watergate scandal during his second term (which is featured prominently along a 100-yard corridor in the museum), you might consider Nixon one of the great, progressive presidents. The museum has spectacular interactive and colorful cut-out and story board exhibits highlighting his time in office, including his domestic policy achievements, his trip to China, the winding-down of the Vietnam War, and the Apollo moon landing.
His presidential campaign victories (and his 1962 loss in the race for governor of California) are portrayed along the museum's curved corridors. Exhibits include photos from his early life, his time in the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate, as well as his time as Dwight D. Eisenhower's vice president. Scattered throughout the exhibits are radio and television clips of some of his life's high and low lights. One can even listen to portions of the Watergate tapes, and read newly-installed President Gerald R. Ford's famous statement after Nixon's resignation: "Our long national nightmare is over."
Reflecting on today's Republican Party, it's hard to imagine Richard Nixon as a conservative. He supported legislation creating the Environmental Protection Agency, and signed the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act. He also signed bills that included Title IX, which gave women equal education and sports opportunities. All of this is prominently featured in the library. He also signed Title X, which gave the federal government a role in family planning programs, which current Republicans in Congress want to eliminate.
Re-creations of signature moments in Nixon's career are scattered throughout the museum: A TV camera and studio with Nixon debating JFK in 1960; Nixon and Chou En-Lai, the Chinese premier, shaking hands near Air Force One; the Lincoln Sitting Room, Nixon's favorite White House spot; a moving Vietnam War exhibit; and, cutouts of members of the Chowder and Marching Society, a club of U.S. House Members, created by Nixon as a Congressional freshman.
First Lady Pat Nixon has her own gallery, featuring her public service work, and of course, her hair style and dresses. Nixon's life after resignation, and his attempt to restore his reputation as a foreign policy guru are highlighted by a re-creation of his New Jersey study and a display of the books he wrote from 1974, until his 1994 death.
The re-creation of the Oval Office reminded me of my only visit to that storied room while Nixon was president. I was part of the two-person Washington bureau of the Omaha World-Herald when Jerry Warren, a former Nebraskan, was one of the assistant White House press secretaries. Nixon, from time-to-time, would have a news conference in the Oval Office, which excluded the broadcast media. When that was upcoming, Warren would call us at the World-Herald. We usually did not cover the White House, leaving that to the national news outlets, but who could pass up a visit to the Oval Office during your first few weeks on the job? So, there I stood with the other reporters around Nixon's desk while he answered questions. I may have been paranoid, but I was sure he kept eyeing me all during the news conference -- a stranger among the regulars!
Nixon may have been a progressive domestically, and had a multilateralist approach to foreign policy, but, of course, his involvement in the Watergate scandal has forever colored his legacy. Near the library and museum stands a mighty symbol of his downfall: The helicopter from which he waved, his arms outstretched and his fingers in the familiar "V", right before his final departure from the White House lawn.