18 February 2013

Today is President’s Day.  Last fall, a friend and I went to the Nixon Presidential Museum and Library in Yorba Linda, Calif.  It was my first trip to a presidential library and now I want to go to all of them and collect the full set.

The library is located on the grounds where Nixon was born and includes the tiny house that his father built from a kit (perhaps Sears & Roebuck). I was pretty little when Nixon resigned, but I remember my family gathering around the television as he took his last flight on Army One, the helicopter that he and his family flew away in after resigning in disgrace. 

The helicopter is on the grounds. It had been used by Kennedy and Johnson before Nixon and by Ford after he finished with it.  Nixon was a smart, complicated person. After filtering him my whole life through the lens of Watergate, it was remarkable to explore the rest of his life and see how stubborn he was and how much he felt like an underdog throughout his life. The library took care to offer seemingly mundane details that were fascinating. For example, while Nixon was in the Navy, he was quite the poker player. His winnings from one of his last games before his discharge funded his first congressional race. 

I’m sure at some point (probably in eighth grade, when my knowledge seemed to have peaked) I knew that he won reelection in 1972 by the widest margin in history: 18 million votes. He only lost Massachusetts and the District of Columbia to George McGovern. The electoral college map, awash in one color, was a site to behold

There was also a section dedicated to his wife, Pat Nixon, that highlighted her accomplishments, but also served to humanize him. The First Lady’s section included a gracious letter from Jacqueline Kennedy profusely thanking the Nixons. It turns out the unveiling of JFK’s official presidential portrait happened while Nixon was in office. Mrs. Kennedy had not been back to the White House since leaving it immediately after JFK’s assassination and had no desire to return even though the pressure was great to show up at the unveiling. The Nixons offered her and her children, JFK Jr. and Caroline, sanctuary and promised them no press and no photographers would be allowed, in order to make the family as comfortable as possible. Mrs. Kennedy accepted. The Nixons were good to their promise and, because of that, there is no footage of the unveiling. 

We also have Pat Nixon to thank for pandas coming to the U.S. While accompanying her husband on his groundbreaking trip to China in 1972, Chinese Premier Zhou En-lai asked Mrs. Nixon how she was enjoying her trip and she remarked how much she had loved seeing the pandas at the Peking Zoo. He replied that he would give some to the U.S. and, soon enough, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing arrived at Washington, D.C.’s National Zoo and caused “Panda-monium.”

My friend and I had just gotten to the Watergate section when the museum closed, so we need to go back to explore that. While the library is historically accurate, it’s clear that the curators lionized Nixon. The library, as are the 12 other official president libraries,  is now administered by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). But until 2007, the library was run by a private foundation, which seemingly took a little umbrage at the assumption of Nixon’s guilt in Watergate. At the entrance to the Watergate section is a sign that says the Watergate portion was put together by NARA and the museum leaves it up to the museum attendee to decide for his or herself whether Nixon really did anything wrong. 

This year also marks the 100th anniversary of Nixon’s birth. A Centennial Exhibit opened Feb. 15 at the library.  I can’t wait to go back. Next up, my friend and I are going to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library since it's also close by.

I tried to donate to the Nixon library, but couldn’t find a way to. Then I tried to donate to the National Archives and was also coming up short, so finally I found The Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress, so I’m donating my $10 to it. Some days it’s easier to give the money away than others. 

Feb. 18: Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress:  http://www.thepresidency.org/

49 down, 316 to go.

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