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Down the Rabbit Hole at the Richard Nixon Museum

How do you memorialize the nation's biggest inside joke? As I learned, it takes a whole lot of statues.

by Kevin Lincoln
Jan 12 2015, 8:35pm

Photos by author

Richard Nixon is a disgrace. This might be one of the least controversial statements you can make regarding American politics: In the wake of his resignation following the Watergate scandal, the 37th president's legacy was pretty much established. The Oval Office hasn't exactly seen a parade of saints, and yet Nixon's the only one to ever leave office because of the sins he committed. That's a remarkable achievement, sort of like being the wettest fish in the aquarium.

Despite his postlapsarian status as a grim historical punchline and occasional artistic muse, Nixon is still a former president. And like all former presidents, he gets a library. The Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum is in Yorba Linda, California, a pleasant town of just under 70,000 in northeast Orange County. I went to the Nixon Library with one question in mind: How exactly do you memorialize the country's biggest inside joke?

The answer starts outside, with a fountain.

Aided by the natural beauty of California—it was 70 degrees on the January day I visited—the first impression of the Nixon Library is extremely pleasantness. It feels like a library—the kind that holds books you'd want to read, not pictures of Richard Nixon's face.

Once you purchase your ticket—at the low, low price of $11.95—the first thing that greets you, aside from the docent who kindly explains how the museum works, is an astronaut.

The astronaut serves as a helpful primer, because he teases at the onslaught of shit you're about to encounter on your trip through the museum. Unlike the George W. Bush Museum, Nixon's library doesn't have any games that turn 9/11 into a Choose Your Own Adventure book, and there are no paintings of Vladimir Putin to turn a disgraced leader of the free world into your kindly weird uncle. Instead, the Nixon museum avoids being a three-dimensional version of a Wikipedia article by flooding you with miscellany: buttons from his campaigns, letters he wrote, campaign thimbles.

Curious how Nixon looked on the campaign trail? He looked like this:

By the end of your visit, you feel like you've been stabbed in the gut, over and over, by Tricky Dick's shovel-blade grin.

The museum progresses chronologically through Nixon's political career, with a particularly bizarre stop at the Alger Hiss trials. This is the first, though not the only, hint that maybe the museum curators were a little too sympathetic toward the life and times of Nixon: Hiss is derided as a liar and a Communist—a position that has historical credibility—but makes no mention of the fact that the House Un-American Activities Committee wasn't the best contribution to our national legacy. Instead, Nixon's role in HUAC is treated as just a stepping stone for his career—like presiding over Congress, except with more naming names.

At about this point, I had the good fortune of falling into the orbit of a tour. The guide was telling his wards about the Hiss trials. "Alger Hiss was favored by the news media, and from that point until the time he died, the media was against Richard Nixon," the guide said. I wanted to shout the words "Woodward and Bernstein" just to see how he'd react, but I decided that it would be better to let him keep rolling.

And roll he did. A few teens on the tour hung back to look at the exhibit. Pointing them out to the rest of the tour, the guide said, "That's one of our country's problems—these kids don't want to learn about history."

An adult, possibly their mother, chimed in: "Actually, they're just reading more into the stuff we skipped."

"Oh," the guide responded. Another person bailed him out: "It says here that California used to only have 30-something electoral votes. Doesn't it have more now? Must be because the population's higher."

"That's because we got all these illegals now," the guide said. I figured it might be time for me to get moving.

I walked past an antique TV setup showing the Kennedy–Nixon debate from 1960—"people listening on the radio thought Nixon won," I heard the guide say in the background, really earning his pay —and into what could only be described as "Touring the World with Richard Nixon."

Dedicated to Nixon's international statesmanship, the all-black room was filled with memorials to the Berlin Wall, Vietnam, his meeting with Mao, and so on. Another room featured busts of Nixon and all the other world leaders that factored into his career, plus a disclaimer saying that the museum wasn't making any sort of comment on the legacy of these leaders. Because nothing says "Communism is dope" like a statue of Nikita Khrushchev.

"Hey! Who wants to ghost-ride Nixon's whip!" This is what I would have said out loud if I had anyone to say it out loud to. Instead, I was alone in the Nixon Library at 11 AM.

At this point, I was ready for the sweet schadenfreude of Watergate, and on that front, the museum didn't disappoint. It was the best of both worlds: on the one hand, a thorough and impressive explanation of the scandals put together by the National Archives; on the other, a little caption from the museum that said, "Watergate has produced many books and conflicting interpretations. Ultimately, it is up to you to decide how well our system of government worked back then and what, if any, lessons there are for us today."

In a way, this disclaimer, even more than the Cliven Bundy–esque tour guide and countless Nixonfaces, was what I'd come to the museum looking for. As our national politics strays farther and farther away from trifling annoyances like facts and evidence and replaces them with the astounding lie that history is open for your personal interpretation, even Watergate, one of the grossest and least debatable abuses of power in American history can be turned into a judgment call. You could practically hear folks leaving the museum and saying to each other, "I mean, can you blame him?"

Wandering through the rest of the grounds, I found a bust of Nixon's head that looked like it was made out of caramel, a huge ballroom with comically large chandeliers, and a couple who seemed to be considering the Library as a possible location for their wedding.

The two final pieces of Nixon memorabilia were his birthplace, which the Museum has preserved, and his helicopter, made famous for ferrying him out right after he gave the double peace-signs. The birthplace was... a house. A small house. It was yellow. Would I move into Nixon's house? Probably not, but if you lived there, I'd visit.

And finally, the helicopter. As I approached, a kind, elderly tour guide asked me how much time I had. I said I was in a rush, because I had to get back to Los Angeles to meet some people for lunch, and also because if I spent any more time thinking about Richard Nixon, I'd probably end up running into the Pacific Ocean. She led me through the helicopter, which looked like a 60s-era rec room stuffed into a large tin can.

As we exited, she asked if I wanted a picture in front of the helicopter. I said sure. She took one. Then she said, "Now do one with the Nixon peace sign!" I hesitated. She goaded me on, like someone trying to get you to take a shot.

History will judge us all.

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