If, as Bob Dylan wrote, museums are where infinity goes up on trial, then the Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library and Museum is an appropriate place for a jury to assemble.
But we have come to this Yorba Linda memorial to neither praise nor bury the legacy of the 37th President of the United States. Nor is this jury interested in what most visitors come for: to learn about the content of the the life and times of one of the most complicated figures to ever traverse the American stage.
No, on this day, a trio of writers, artists and educators--myself, Fullerton artist and educator Jesse La Tour, and Cypress College psychology professor Dr. Valerie Marino--are there to examine the form of Nixon's legacy, through his museum's architecture and photographs, its artifacts and exhibits.
Our goal is to discover if the museum's aesthetic helps shape the perception of a man whose memory remains a source of contention nearly 40 years after he resigned from the U.S. Presidency. Library aside, there are few physical mementos of Nixon in the county he was born and spent so much of his later years in, or the neighboring city where he launched his political career, Whittier.
Except for a restaurant in San Juan Capistrano Nixon frequented, and a plaque commemorating his first law office in La Habra, his legacy remains strangely muted on his own turf.
Or perhaps it's not so strange. For all that he accomplished--thawing American relations with China and the USSR, finally ending the war in Vietnam--Nixon brought a level of contempt for the office of the presidency that reverberates today. And maybe in experiencing his library's sense of aesthetic place, some of the noise of Nixon's life and presidency might be made more comprehensible.
From bustling Yorba Linda Boulevard, the $14 million (in 1990 dollars) building doesn't seem like much. If anything, it resembles one of the ubiquitous low-slung, Spanish architecture-inspired, horizontal shopping centers littered across the Orange County landscape. The subdued design of the campus, which includes Nixon's birthplace, grave site, presidential archives and exhibits chronicling his life and times, is no accident.
In 1990, its architect, Richard Poulus, told the New York Times that "Nixon's journey from humble obscurity to national leadership is a central symbol in the way the library was laid out on the site. The little house on the hill is the emotional anchor of the design."
It hasn't changed since that article's publication. The library is, as the article states, "in many ways an extension of the President's home. Its character is muted, carefully crafted and very much in tune with the shady suburban streets that surround it. Its style expresses the down-home, ordinary-guy side of Nixon's character rather than the ambiguities of his complex soul...Composed of three low, red-tiled pavilions grouped around the reflecting pool, the complex breathes an air of domestic tranquility. Clad in warm red Arizona sandstone set between a plinth of buff-colored cement plaster and a recessed band of black slate under the roof line, the library's architecture is truly welcoming and unmonumental."
The large fountain and three flags out front--Old Glory, the California state flag and one adorned with the presidential seal--indicate something more substantial than an Albertson's grocery store lies inside.
But the instant you enter the sun-splashed outer lobby, with its expansive sunlight and the dozen or so flags arranged around the enormous presidential seal emblazoned in the floor, you know it.
You also get a sense of how ubiquitous Nixon's presence was in the second half of the 20th Century. Mounted on the wall to the right are the 54 Time Magazine covers Nixon's face appeared on from 1952-1994. That's a record (though if he wins re-election, Barack Obama will probably trump it).
It's an impressive visual showing Nixon's impact on the domestic and international stage.
Yet, that impact is sullied by how you get into the actual museum exhibits: through a gift shop hawking all kinds of goofy memorabilia, from T-shirts and coffee mugs emblazoned with "What Would Nixon Do?" to a display featuring kitschy Elvis trinkets (the private Richard Nixon Foundation, which founded the museum, still operates the gift shop and loves to trumpet Elvis' 1969 visit to the White House).
We all gotta eat, but there just seems something a touch incongruous about entering and exiting a presidential museum through a gift shop.
Once you enter the museum proper, you get your first, and nearly the last, taste of the man behind the politician and world leader. On the right hand of the inner lobby leading to the main exhibit hall is a long series of displays focusing on Nixon's life before he entered politics in 1946. There's also a meticulously detailed dollhouse replicating the home that his father, Frank, reportedly assembled after ordering it from a Sears catalogue. Look closely and you can see little Dick tickling the ivories on the family piano.
It's all quite homey and pastoral. Yet, before the exhibits start, you're greeted by another slice of incongruity. In the hall leading to the exhibits detailing his political career, two oil paintings and an actual spacesuit worn on the Apollo 11 mission, reflect landmark occasions during Nixon's presidency: his trips to the USSR and China, and the 1969 Moon landing.
Yet, between them are huge photos of Nixon shaking Elvis' hand (the same image you can't miss in the gift shop) and Jackie Robinson.
Signed letters from both men to Nixon rest in cases beneath their photographs. Presley's asks Nixon for an unofficial job in his drug war. Robinson's encourages Nixon to not think of busing as forced integration but as a way for blacks to get equal educational opportunities.
Whatever their historical merits, it feels weird to have photos of entertainment and athletic icons hanging in a hall celebrating man's conquest of the Moon, and the beginning of the end of the Cold War. It's as if Nixon's legacy can't rest on its accomplishments--positive or negative--but needs reminders that if the King and Jackie cared enough to write him, then, hey, he really was important.
The first set of gallery exhibits, which chronicle his initial congressional campaign in 1946 through his election as president in 1968, are fascinating visual and textual displays, ranging from typical museum glass-encased historical photos and narratives, to audio recordings of Nixon's interrogation of Alger Hiss, to a recreation of a 1960s living room TV console, where you can grab a seat on the sofa and watch the landmark 1960 debate between Nixon and Kennedy.
Interspersed throughout the historical exhibits are an array of gifts given to the Nixons over the years. A 13th Century carnelian necklace from Golda Meir. An enormous ivory tusk from the vice president of Liberia. Jade sculptures. Gold bracelets. Exquisite artwork from across the globe.
And, signifying his enormous amount of campaigning, there is a ceaseless torrent of memorabilia, from Dike and Ike campaign buttons to rhinestoned-out necklaces, bracelets and pins.
Largely missing from the first 22 years of Nixon's public life is anything that signifies the man behind the relentless, bulldog image of campaigner and statesman. There are photos of him with Fidel Castro and Nikita Khrushchev. Of he and his wife, Pat, at massive campaign rallies and conventions. But very few that show him in private, candid moments.
Things get three-dimensional once Nixon is elected in 1968. You come to a room adorned with flags of the world and 10 life-size bronze-over-paper-Mache sculptures of world leaders that Nixon hung with. Then you enter a room extolling his international successes. There's a mock Chinese pagoda where a life-size replica of Nixon shakes hands with a Chinese Premier, another faux Kremlin, and a 21-foot section of the Berlin Wall.
After this Disney-like collage, you enter the most beautiful room, one dedicated to Nixon's kinder, gentler side: his quite remarkable wife. Large windows amplify the sunlight and the view looks out to a gorgeous rose garden and up the gentle slope leading to the Nixons' graves and a reconstruction of his boyhood home.
Near Pat's gallery is a replica of the Lincoln sitting room, Nixon's favorite room in the White House. Laid out in meticulous display, this is one point in the museum where the private and political seem at harmony. You can see Nixon's favorite comfy chair and ottoman next to the desk where he labored over his speeches and received some of his most tense briefings.
Eventually, you hit the display that took years to get right, or at at least balanced: Watergate. For years, the Nixon Foundation drew criticism from those who felt that it had white-washed this darkest and final chapter in Nixon's political life. When the National Archives and Records Administration took over the library in 2007, it began revamping the small exhibit into a far more comprehensive one.
In marked contrast to the other permanent exhibits which are, at turns, refined, restrained or Disneyfied, the Watergate exhibit screams at you. The walls explode in right red, green and yellow. Large letters proclaim: "This is a conspiracy." It feels like the side of a train car doused in graffiti or the loud noisy posters that adorn the entrance to an underground club.
The effect is as jarring and disturbing as the entire Watergate debacle. Marino said the colors alone were "so powerful and disturbing I actually wanted out of the room and didn't read a thing in it."
Fortunately, tranquility rests just outside, with a graceful reflecting pool and gently sloped terrace leading to Nixon's boyhood home and his gravesite.
Standing there, facing the library, where Nixon's journey began to your left and where it ended to your right, it's difficult to not reflect on the unfathomable quirks of history that allowed a kid born amid the citrus groves of rural Yorba Linda in 1913 to rise to the position of the most powerful man in the world. It's equally unfathomable to think of the heights he reached and the depths that he drug a country into.
It's a legacy that remains sharply contentious and the museum devoted to him, instead of resolving the huge contrast between a quite human man and the internationally public politician, merely reinforces the dichotomy of Richard M. Nixon.
Maybe in the millions of pages of and the thousands of hours of tapes in the presidential archives, a complete picture of Nixon emerges. But as far as his museum, we are left with Nixon the Head of State, Nixon the Peacemaker, Nixon the Campaigner, Nixon the Fallen Leader.
You have to look very closely to find Nixon the Man. But there are glimpses.
One is found in reproduction of Nixon's office in Park Ridge, New Jersey, where he spent his much of his post-Presidential life reading and writing. Books line his desk and shelves: Nietzsche's "Beyond Good and Evil." James Michener's "Space." Political biographies. Books on history and art. All quite impressive and important and big and weighty.
And there, tucked away on a shelf beneath a stack of weighty tomes, is one that in its own silent way speaks volumes about the man who sat in this office: an encyclopedia of professional football.
I don't know; it's kind of reassuring that the guy who kicked it with Brezhnev and Mao, spoke to the first man on the moon, and who resigned in disgrace from his country's presidency, occasionally felt compelled to check out how many yards Sammy Baugh passed for in 1947.
Top Image: Photo by Joel Beers.
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