Monday, December 12, 2011

Reflections on Nixon

This weekend, I found myself exploring the life and legacy of Richard M. Nixon, the 37th President of the United States.  I use the word "found" because this wasn't my intention when I started out.  My initial plan was to explore Whittier, CA, a city about 12 miles southeast of Los Angeles.  Some googling highlighted Whittier College and the Whittier Museum as points of interest so I set off to intending to visit both and perhaps to do some shopping in uptown Whittier to end my day.

I first went to Whittier College.  It's a small, private, liberal arts college of approximately a couple thousand students, founded in 1887 by the Religious Society of Friends, aka Quakers.  It's a pretty campus, and I strolled through it for a leisurely hour.  Since I was there on Sunday, the campus was serene.
Whittier College
Whittier College
The weather was great--breezy and sunny--so I stopped by the student cafeteria to pick up a cup of coffee which I sipped on a bench by this fountain:
Whittier College
that's adjacent to this monument:
Whittier College
I knew that Richard Nixon was an alumnus before I visited the campus, but that fact was incidental to my visit there.  Yet it was portentous because when I finished with Whittier College and drove over to Whittier Museum, I discovered that the museum was closed because the presumably sole docent was out sick!
Whittier College Class of '34
As I sat in my car wondering what I should do next, I remembered a conversation I had with a friend a couple days earlier who mentioned the Nixon Library, located in Yorba Linda.  My trusty guidebook read that the library was only 17 miles away, and so I headed out on my revised itinerary.
The Nixon Presidential Library and Museum (full name) is part of the presidential libraries system administered by the National Archives and Records Administration, a federal agency.  But it wasn't always so.  It was initially a private institution, which, according to my guidebook, was problematic because the Nixon Foundation--the organization that initially funded and opened the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace (original name)--both sugarcoated and misrepresented the Watergate scandal, painting it as a conspiracy and political coup by Nixon's opponents to discredit, smear, and oust a sitting President rather than as an impartial record of Nixon's wrongdoing.  When the National Archives took over the library in 2007, among the changes they implemented was to replace the old Watergate presentation with the current, more truthful gallery.  The new Watergate gallery opened earlier this year.
Watergate Gallery at Nixon Library
However, despite Watergate, I was drawn in by Nixon's biography...his poor Quaker upbringing to his political rise and fall and rise again before the infamous denouement.  That final scandal overshadows his political and humanitarian accomplishments, and I admit that up until my visit, what little I knew of Nixon was just an overarching and simplified image of his hubris and his ultimate failing as a public servant.  He also seemed like an eccentric, vacant nutbar based on the lauded portrayal of him in the recent film, Frost/Nixon.  (The Watergate gallery also showed excerpts from his actual interview with David Frost, and Nixon didn't appear even half as dotty as Frost/Nixon portrayed him to be.)

Yet, I learned that during his political career, many social and political landmarks were achieved which he directly or indirectly influenced.  Some examples of them:  he enforced desegregation of schools in seven Southern states; he established the Environmental Protection Agency; he enforced legislation of the 1973 Endangered Species Act; he signed Title 1X prohibiting gender bias at colleges and universities receiving Federal aid; he created the Office of Minority Business Enterprise (now called Minority Business Development Agency) that promotes growth and competitiveness of minority-owned businesses.

As a whole, my visit was a very thoughtful one.  I left the Nixon Library with a previously absent respect for Mr. Nixon who, despite his tarnished legacy, did accomplish much that was positive during his presidency.

Richard Milhous Nixon birthplace in Yorba Linda, CA


  1. That is awesome! I love the spontaneous add-on. Coincidentally, I have plans to take my newphew downstate to the Lincoln Library next week.

  2. Funny you should mention that...the friend with whom I spoke about the Nixon Library and I were semi-seriously talking about doing a presidential library tour across the U.S. some day. At the least, she and I are planning on going to the Reagan Library in January.

  3. Yeah I was wondering when Reagan's library was going to be visited. Whittier is also home of the Whittier earthquake that happened when we were in junior high.

  4. I've been to Ronald Reagan's boyhood home! Dixon, Illinois!