Richard Nixon Museum and Birthplace

Field review by the editors.

Yorba Linda, California

Nixon's the One.

The Checkers Speech.
The Checkers Speech.

The one who had his presidential papers taken away after resigning from office in Watergate cover-up disgrace, August 9, 1974.

Presidents historically own their papers (documents, memos, notes, tapes and other material) after leaving office, but it didn't work out that way for Richard M. Nixon. His successor, Gerald Ford, approved Congress's "Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act," which secured the papers in the National Archives in Maryland.

For a long time this made the west coast's Nixon Presidential Library & Museum a singularly hobbled Presidential repository. We visited the museum after it first opened in 1990, enjoying its slightly skewed presentation of the nation's wily 37th Chief Executive, and its many touchstones from politics and pop culture.

Flash-forward, and it's a New Nixon -- dead since 1994, his papers returned, his Library managed by the National Archives and part of the federal presidential library system. The current attraction still offers observant Roadsiders plenty of fascinating nuggets, an ample gift shop, and a new Watergate gallery criticized by the folks who created the old Watergate gallery.

Nixon birth home.
Nixon birth home.

A U-shaped building wrapped around a reflecting pool dominates the nine-acre property. A modest wood frame house is where Nixon was born in 1913 (it was built by his dad from a kit). It stands among well-tended gardens near the graves of the President and his First Lady, Pat Nixon.

Rock in the shape of Nixon's profile.
Rock in the shape of Nixon's profile.

Nearby is the Presidential helicopter, a VH-3A Sea King, open for visitor perusal, and used by Presidents from Kennedy to Ford. But it is forever remembered for Nixon's televised 1974 departure from the White House lawn.

In the museum, themed galleries take visitors through his political career. Along "The Road To The Presidency," you pass a replica hollowed-out Alger Hiss pumpkin, Nixon's US Senator campaign Woody, and the sheet music for 1960s "Nixon Victory Song."

An old television shows a recording of Nixon's masterful 1952 Checkers speech -- officially labeled as "The Fund Crisis Speech." Nixon turned his alleged misuse of a VP campaign expense account into an emotional defense of his wife's coat and his pet dog, Checkers. Sixty million Americans watched the broadcast.

Important documents and artifacts appear alongside cheesy campaign memorabilia. The Nixon brand evolves, during his 1952 run as Eisenhower's VP, and his failed Presidential bid against Kennedy in 1960. By his 1968 and 1972 campaigns, Nixon is on 3D buttons, flexi-discs, psychedelic Nixon dresses and necklaces. One button groovily invites: "Join the Nixon New Revolution Now!"

World Leaders gallery.
World Leaders gallery.

Nixon liked (and was effective at) the international relations part of his job, first as Eisenhower's VP and later as President. The World Leader Gallery contains ten life-size bronzes of his political contemporaries, such as Anwar Sadat, Winston Churchill, and Golda Meir. Arranged like a high powered cocktail reception, figures are clumped in groups as if having conversations. Mao Tse-tung and Chou En-lai relax in a pair of comfy chairs. Visitors can stand among the dignitaries, though signs warn that touching isn't allowed.

Watergate gallery.

The inclusion of Communist leaders has irked some (especially victims of Communism), but part of the Nixon legacy was opening diplomatic relations with China. There's a room devoted to those negotiations, just past the slab of the Berlin Wall.

The Space Race gallery connects Nixon to NASA's missions. There's an Apollo 16 space suit reproduction, dehydrated pork and scallops astronaut food, and gift lunar landing cufflinks. A phone used by Nixon to call the Apollo 11 astronauts after they landed on the Moon may be on display (it occasionally goes on tour), along with a contingency speech drafted by speechwriter William Safire in case the astronauts were killed on impact.

Every modern Presidential library stores piles of gifts -- ceremonial offerings from heads of state, or charming homemade items from ordinary citizens. At the Nixon Museum, we liked a "Rock in the Shape of President Nixon's Profile" with its vague ski-slope contours, courtesy of Barry Goldwater; a Sammy Davis Jr. "Love and Peace" medallion; and the Colt .45 pistol given to Nixon by Elvis Presley in the Oval Office in 1970.

White House Taping System and the Gap.
White House Taping System and the Gap.

The controversial Watergate gallery is toward the end. The 60-ft. long hallway chronicles the political climate that led to the break-in, how it evolved into a cover-up, the investigations and indictments. A touch screen invites visitors to explore the White House Enemies List. There are lock picks and an electronic listening device used by the "Plumbers."

Visitors can listen to the 18 1/2 minute "gap" from Nixon's secret office taping system. A handset keypad allows listeners to skim ahead to important clicking noises, deemed evidence of intentional tampering and erasure. The old exhibit might have left some visitors sympathizing with Nixon on a few key aspects of Watergate, but the new exhibit is fairly damning, like a museum display on organized crime.

Campaign swag.

Nixon had a post-White House life, twenty years of reputation rehab as an author, speaker, and world affairs authority. He spent his last days in Park Ridge, NJ -- his home office is reproduced in the museum -- suffered a stroke, and died soon after at age 81. A folded American flag from his casket is under glass near the exit.

One penalty for being run out of the highest office in the land is that you or your followers probably shouldn't get to craft a perfect public museum about the wonderfulness that was you. The museum's Nixon -- the good and the bad -- is undoubtedly not the one Nixon wanted chiseled into immortality, but at least it's all in one place.

October 2016: The museum has been extensively renovated, at taxpayer expense, with an eye to presenting Nixon's challenges and flaws for a new generation to understand.

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Richard Nixon Museum and Birthplace

Nixon Presidential Library & Museum

Address:
18001 Yorba Linda Blvd, Yorba Linda, CA
Directions:
FROM EAST-WEST: Riverside Freeway [Hwy 91] to Imperial Hwy/Hwy 90 exit. North roughly two miles to Yorba Linda Blvd., then west to the Museum. FROM NORTH-SOUTH: Orange Freeway [Hwy 57] to Yorba Linda Blvd. exit. East roughly three miles to the Museum.
Hours:
M-Sa 10-5, Su 11-5 (Call to verify)
Phone:
714-993-9120
Admission:
Adults $12.
RA Rates:
Major Fun
Save to My Sights

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May 26, 2017

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