SoCal's Presidential History: Nixon, Reagan, and... McAdoo?

President Richard Nixon and Governor Ronald Reagan walk across the field before the 1969 Rose Bowl game in Pasadena. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive, Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

The 37th and 40th Presidents of the United States are buried within 45 miles of downtown Los Angeles at their respective presidential libraries. As the country's only metropolitan area to host two presidential libraries, Southern California boasts a wealth of presidential history--and contemporary presidential drama like the recent the September 7 G.O.P. bout at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley. And yet the region of more than 17.8 million residents—more populous than all but three states—has not produced a major presidential contender since Richard Nixon exited the political stage in 1974.

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Nixon (third from right) files to run for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1949. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive, Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

Nixon celebrates his win in the 1950 senatorial election. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photograph Collection.

Nixon returns to his hometown of Yorba Linda in 1952 to campaign for the Republican ticket. Courtesy of the Orange County Archives.

Raised in Orange County and Whittier, Nixon was a recent World War II veteran when he won election to the U.S. House in 1946, representing Los Angeles County. The young politician rose quickly: Californians elevated him to the U.S. Senate in 1950, and in 1952 Dwight D. Eisenhower made Nixon a national figure by choosing him as his running mate. He served as Eisenhower's backup from 1953 to 1961, but his political fortunes had turned; in 1960 John F. Kennedy defeated him for the presidency, and in 1962 he lost his bid to unseat Edmund "Pat" Brown, Sr., as California governor.

Nixon eventually won the presidency, of course, serving from 1969 until 1974, when he resigned and retired to the Western White House, La Casa Pacifica, in San Clemente. Dedicated in 1990, Nixon's presidential library is located at the site of his birthplace and childhood home in Yorba Linda.

Ronald Reagan arrives at Graumann's Chinese Theater in Hollywood with his first wife, actress Jane Wyman, in 1942. Reagan is wearing an Army uniform--during the Second World War, he served in the U.S. Army's First Motion Pictures Unit as a public relations representative. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive, Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

Reagan marrying Nancy Davis in 1951. Actor William Holden, his best man, appears on the right. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Examiner Collection, USC Libraries.

Ronald Reagan files papers with the L.A. County registrar of voters to run for governor of California in 1966. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive, Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

Unlike Nixon, Ronald Reagan was not a Southern California native. Born in Illinois, the Midwesterner arrived in 1937 as a newly signed actor for Warner Bros. Pictures. Although Reagan never broke into the top echelon of film stars, he worked as a screen actor until the 1960s, when he left the entertainment industry for a new role: politician. Reagan first appeared as an enthusiastic Barry Goldwater supporter in 1964 and then as California governor from 1967 to 1975.

A champion of conservative causes, Reagan made two unsuccessful presidential bids, first losing the Republican nomination to Nixon in 1968 and then narrowly losing to the incumbent president, Gerald Ford, in 1976. With his third attempt, in 1980, Reagan found success. He defeated George H.W. Bush for the Republican nomination and then unseated Jimmy Carter as president. After leaving office in 1989, Reagan retired to Bel Air. His presidential library opened in Simi Valley in 1991.

On Saturday, October 22, archivists from the Reagan Library and the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda will discuss some of the unique materials that link their collections with Southern California history at the 6th-annual Los Angeles Archives Bazaar.

William Gibbs McAdoo in his Washington, D.C. office. Courtesy of the Keystone-Mast Collection, UCR/California Museum of Photography, University of California at Riverside.

Nixon and Reagan are household names, but Southern California's first serious presidential contender—a lawyer and traction magnate named William Gibbs McAdoo, whose papers are housed at UCLA's Young Research Library—is largely unknown today.

Born in Georgia during the Civil War, McAdoo oversaw two major rail transit projects in his early career. First was the conversion of Knoxville, Tennessee's street railway to electric streetcars, which bankrupted the company and prompted McAdoo to move to New York City in 1892. Second was the completion of the rail tunnels under the Hudson River, which McAdoo oversaw as president of the Hudson and Manhattan Railroad. The tunnels, completed in 1907, continue to shuttle PATH commuters between New York and New Jersey to this day.

McAdoo's success as a New York railroad executive helped launch his career in politics. He became vice chairman of the national Democratic Party in 1912 and from 1913 to 1918 served as Woodrow Wilson's Secretary of the Treasury. It was a role in which he excelled; his actions during a 1914 financial crisis transformed the United States from a borrower to a creditor nation and, according to some, helped the United States wrest the world's economic leadership from Great Britain.

Although he did not permanently move to Los Angeles until 1922, McAdoo's Southern California story begins in 1919, when he helped found United Artists. The new film studio, the brainchild of Hollywood stars Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, D. W. Griffith, and Mary Pickford, was owned and operated by actors and directors instead of financiers. McAdoo joined the new company as general counsel and, along with the four founding stars, assumed a 20 percent ownership stake in the studio. His tenure was short lived, however; by April 1920 he had resigned and sold his shares.

McAdoo during the inauguration of an anti-narcotic league in North Hollywood in 1923. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photograph Collection.

Leaving United Artists allowed McAdoo to reenter national politics. After months of denying interest in a bid, in June 1920 McAdoo entered the field for the Democratic nomination for president. At the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco, McAdoo received the most votes on the first ballot but did not secure a majority; in subsequent ballots his support waned, and the nomination went to Governor James Cox of Ohio.

McAdoo again sought the Democratic nomination in 1924, this time as a California resident. Endorsed by the then-resurgent Ku Klux Klan, McAdoo controversially declined to repudiate the racist group's endorsement. McAdoo's chief opponent was Governor Al Smith of New York, a Catholic and an opponent of the Klan.

At the national convention in Madison Square Garden, McAdoo again finished atop the first ballot but never could secure a majority thanks to the strong opposition of Smith's backers. The nomination eventually went to a compromise candidate, former Solicitor General John W. Davis.

Although McAdoo, who later represented California in the U.S. Senate from 1933 to 1938, never won the Democratic nomination, he was Southern California's only serious presidential contender until Richard Nixon in 1960.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt with McAdoo in Los Angeles in 1938. Courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Many of the archives who contributed the above images are members of L.A. as Subject, an association of more than 230 libraries, museums, official archives, personal collections, and other institutions. Hosted by the USC Libraries, L.A. as Subject is dedicated to preserving and telling the sometimes-hidden stories and histories of the Los Angeles region. Our posts here will provide a view into the archives of individuals and cultural institutions whose collections inform the great narrative—in all its complex facets—of Southern California.

The images in this post from the UCLA Library are used under a Creative Commons license.

About the Author

A writer specializing in Los Angeles history, Nathan Masters serves as manager of academic events and programming communications for the USC Libraries, the host institution for L.A. as Subject.
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