Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Richard Nixon Presidential Library

The Presidential Libraries

This time my travel buddy went with me.  "Heck, yeah," he said, "This should be very entertaining."  Entertaining?  Well, not really.  Spending three hours inside this museum was a refresher course in American History.  There was much I had forgotten, even more I did not know.   I was in high school during the downfall of our 37th president.  Night after night there was yet another incriminating fact concerning his cover-up of the Watergate scandal.  Back then, it was boring.  Now, it is fascinating.

Nixon's administration will be forever marred by Watergate.  The museum, to its credit, does not try to downplay this historic event or the other questionable events in the life of this politician.  It begins, however, with the most joyous moment in the Nixon White House--the dinner for the returning POW's from the Viet Nam War.

From there, it becomes a chronological timeline of his life in politics and that life began very early.  He was only 33 years old when he became a California Congressman.  It was 1946.  He was re-elected in 1948 and then elected to the U.S. Senate in 1950.  His rise was rapid and hard fought.  While serving on the Un-American Activities Committee, he was the one who recognized Alger Hiss was lying.  He was gaining national recognition and chosen by Dwight D. Eisenhower as his running mate in 1952, but his political career almost ended here.

Accused of misusing campaign funds, he was forced to go on television and plead his case to the American public.  Eisenhower almost dropped him, but his speech, known as the Checker's Speech, was a huge success.  Richard M. Nixon was the first politician to use the new medium of television to gain support.  Sixty million Americans watched him speak that night.  "My fellow Americans, I come before you tonight as a candidate for the Vice Presidency, and as a man whose honesty and integrity have been questioned . . ."  It was a speech straight out of Hollywood, ending with his statement that there was one gift he would never return--Checkers, the black and white Cocker Spaniel, given to him by a supporter.  The dog was now part of the family and his little girls were very attached to him.

I couldn't help thinking of my dad.  He used to talk about this speech.  "Clearly, he was a crook, even back then," he said.  "And once a crook, always a crook."  He was ecstatic when Nixon was defeated for the presidency in 1960.  He thought it was the end of him.  Back in California,  he even lost the race for governor.

But Richard Nixon rose again and this is what makes the man so fascinating.  How was this even possible?  The museum does its best to explain the national climate in 1968 and again in 1972.  He won the two presidential elections with ease.  Exhibits highlight the accomplishments of his administration:  The opening up of China, the first Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with the Soviet Union,  the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency and other beneficial bills that were passed during his administration.

But then . . . the news broke.  The Democratic National Committee's headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington D. C. had been burglarized.
 And Nixon digs a hole so deep there is no climbing out.  This exhibit is excellent, but also shocking.  You can listen to his secret tapes as you go along.  You hear about his wanting to use the CIA to block the FBI's investigation.  You hear his bigotry, his arrogance, his paranoia and finally, his desperation.  The man truly thought he was above the law.  By March of 1974, the Attorney General of the United States and six of Nixon's top aides were indicted by a federal grand jury.  Illegal wire tapping, bribery and abuse of power had been going on for years.  Impeachment proceedings began.  Nixon resigned on August 8, 1974.

As I walked out of the exhibit, a kindly docent saw that I was visibly shaken.   "Why did he do it?" I asked.  "It was all so unnecessary.  He won the presidential election by a landslide."

He shrugged.  "Re-elections.  It continues to be a problem.  Politicians will do anything to stay in power."

It's a vague answer, but he had emphasized the word power.

Getting outside and visiting Nixon's birthplace, a charming little white house, was a refreshing end to the day.  His grave site, too, is located on the property and I was struck at how simple the stone was.  The man, it seemed, was finally humbled in death.  Despite his corruption, he was an accomplished diplomat, I will grant him that.  The Greatest Honor History Can Bestow is the Title of Peacemaker.

 It was a fascinating day and I highly recommend a trip to see this library.  It is located in Yorba Linda, California.  I guarantee you will walk away with a renewed interest in American History--the good, the bad and the ugly.

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