Yesterday I spent a pleasant afternoon visiting the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace, dredging up old memories of 1969 (when I was a senior in high school) to 1974 (when I graduated college). Those were the five years of his presidency.
If your opinion of Richard Nixon is dim, just consider this. He was a brilliant, self-made man who fought back from one crushing defeat after another and who, as president, created the Environmental Protection Agency that began cleaning up our air and water, brought about the peaceful desegragation of schools in the South, lowered the voting age to 18, ended the military draft, established the all volunteer army, expanded federal funding to Black colleges, ended the war in Vietnam, kept Russia off balance during the Cold War and signed an arms agreement with the USSR, returned power to the states whenever he could, opened the door to diplomatic relations with China, and presided over America’s first footprints on the moon. He occupied the White House during the turbulent years of the counter-cultural revolution and anti-war movement, which was no easy task. I remember it well.
Then came Watergate and the (expletive deleted) language on the tapes and the unparalleled drama of a presidential resignation. But I have always appreciated Nixon. I have a fondness for him I can’t quite explain, at least not in politically correct terms.
Yet we remember him most for the way it all ended. Like everyone my age, I recall the nonstop television coverage of the Watergate Hearings. On the night he resigned I was in New England on a college speaking trip. I had a bad cold or some kind of minor sickness, and I used that as an excuse to stay at our lodgings and watch the unfolding drama of his resignation speech. It’s the only time in my life I remember using an excuse to miss a speaking engagement, but I was transfixed by the Greek tragedy unfolding on live television from Washington.
We weren’t sure Nixon was really going to resign; but when one of the reporters saw a moving van at the White House it seemed the end was near. I stayed by the television all night and felt a great sense of sadness for this man who I had admired. I think Nixon deserves more credit than he’s given, despite the infamous dark side of his personality.
At any rate, a trip to Nixon’s birthplace and library is either a trip down memory lane, or, if you’re younger than me, an invaluable slice of American history worth understanding. Katrina and I had visited here years before, but the museum has been expanded and revamped since then. If you’re planning to visit Los Angeles, you should devote half a day to the Nixon Library and birthplace. If you have a couple of days, you can also visit the Reagan Museum, which is just up the road a bit.
I miss Nixon and Reagan. Whatever their flaws, I don’t think things have improved much since they were among us, and I see slight prospects for future improvement.