Yorba Linda, California—Across melting asphalt, through burning air, then the open glass doors, to the high counter stacked with visitor guides sponsored by Polly’s Tasty Foods and Pies—here is where you buy a $5.95 ticket to absent-minded history.
“Sir, the movie is about to begin,” beckoned a uniformed attendant waving from the other side of the high-ceilinged lobby. She stood next to a display of souvenir “RN” signature golf balls, coffee mugs, pressed pennies, and bargain books: Pat Nixon: The Untold Story, $5.
“It’s a great introduction to Richard Nixon.” The attendant opened the heavy auditorium door as the overhead digital movie-time clock clicked to zero and Never Give Up: Richard Nixon in the Arena filled the screen.
“This is the story of a man who refused to give up,” a disembodied voice reaffirmed. “And of his remarkable recovery.”
On this early summer afternoon in the 25th year since the August 9, 1974, resignation of the 37th president of the United States, eleven visitors were scattered among the 293 theater seats at the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace, brainchild of, among others, former Seattle Mariners owner George Argyros. The L-shaped museum building sits back off rushing Yorba Linda Boulevard, which leads to the Los Angeles freeway war zones, 15 miles from Disneyland. Inside, a rabbit warren of gallery exhibits reveals moon rocks, Tricia and Julie wedding dresses, life-sized statues of world figures, campaign mementos, and replayable Nixon speeches on high-tech touch screens. For an indoor mile, the Nixon life is recited and recreated, including the New Jersey study where he died of a stroke April 22, 1994—so they say.
The clipped grounds—available for weddings, parties, and proms—are set off by a palm-lined reflecting pool, rose gardens, and the Pat Nixon Amphitheater. On the far side is the beginning and ending of the Dick Nixon story—the tidy two-story farm home where he was born in 1913 and the grayish black stone atop the grave where he is said to be buried, next to the durable, chain-smoking Pat.
Orange County businessman Argyros and other Republican faithful, including computer mogul and former Boeing board member David Packard, helped create the 52,000-square-foot memorial to the man who was not a crook. But Watergate is close to an afterthought among the official letters, papers, photos, and Nixon memorabilia—including his six-door 1967 Lincoln Continental limousine, at $500,000 the most expensive car ever built, due to its necessarily excessive armor plating.
But how dead is he? As dust, Nixon continues to be spun from the grave. Statesman is the operative term, not “dirty tricks” or the “third-rate burglary” of the 1970s that would culminate in his helicopter liftoff from 1600 Pennsylvania—for many, the logo of the Nixon presidency, draped with Gerald Ford’s words, “Our long national nightmare is over.” Videos and White House audio tapes offer only glimpses and alibis: “The president knew nothing about it [the Watergate break-in at Democratic headquarters],” says a voice-over. However, “some of his aides were involved in a cover-up.”
Elsewhere, history says Nixon was no innocent bystander to the cover-up orchestrated in part by aide John Ehrlichman, the jut-jawed former Seattle land-use attorney who went to prison. Another Seattle lawyer Egil (Bud) Krogh—imprisoned, disbarred, reinstated, and again practicing in Seattle—was operations chief of the White House plumbers leak-stoppage and burglary team, helping create the historic criminal scandal with beginnings in the Northwest—as Hank Greenspun tells it.
According to the Las Vegas Sun publisher, Watergate began over dinner in Portland in September, 1971. That’s where Greenspun told Nixon communications director Herb Klein about documents he’d obtained linking Nixon to illegal donations from Howard Hughes, the long-fingernailed billionaire. The information “might sink him,” Greenspun said of Nixon.
Klein reported back to DC, and months later, in 1972, E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy stepped into Greenspun’s office in the dead of night and, on the orders of Attorney General of the United States John Mitchell, tried but failed to punch the safe.
Greenspun thought it a routine burglary. He’d later learn during Congressional hearings that when the Watergate burglars were nabbed June 17, 1972, trying to fix previously installed wiretaps at Demo headquarters, their whole plan was to intercept details of the Nixon-Hughes link. “That,” Greenspun told a reporter once, pulling a packet of Hughes documents from his safe and waving them wildly, “is what caused Watergate”—along with dinner at the Benson Hotel in Portland.
But that is detail not to be found among the forgetful Nixon history. Here, he is still not a crook, and resigned “for the good of the country,” says a narrator. The White House tapes, heard through earphones at sit-down displays, include a disclaimer: Nixon taped 4,000 hours in the Oval Office, but only two percent had to do with Watergate. And yes, the June 23, 1972, “smoking gun tape” suggests Nixon agreed to limit the FBI probe of the Watergate investigation. But please remember he dictated a separate memo authorizing a complete FBI probe. Newer tapes have been released, contradicting this version. They are not yet on the playlist here.
At a display near the exit, a posted note sent by the Seattle son of Bud Krogh wishes Nixon well when he was ailing in 1994. Young Krogh mentions his father had just published a book about the day Elvis Presley came to the White House, discussed the Beatles and the dangers of drugs, and exchanged gifts—a badge for Elvis, a .45 handgun for Nixon. It’s unclear if Nixon ever saw the Krogh book. He died a few days after the note arrived. His funeral is replayed on a TV monitor above Krogh’s letter. For affirmation, the Nixon death certificate from the Vander-Platt Funeral Home is displayed nearby, signed and dated.
It looks official. Still, Nixon, like Elvis, has left the building but not the here and now. In moving pictures he waves, he sweats, he stumbles. The scary gravely voice trails you down dark hallways. History churns, Nixon evolves. Waterwhat? At 25, the remarkable recovery continues.