For those who were around back in the summer of 1974 with the incessant TV coverage of Watergate and the self-destruction of a president, Southern California's Nixon Presidential Library will be like a step back in time. For those who only heard about it, the library will help explain why people remember those events so vividly.
First you have to understand the word “library” doesn't do this facility justice. It's not so much a repository for books as it is a showplace for memorabilia from Richard Nixon's fascinating life. The Yorba Linda campus is also the place where the late president and his wife are buried and, fittingly, the actual home where Nixon was born stands tall today on the library grounds.
Starting with the huge presidential seal on the floor of the library entrance, a fascinating collection of books, photos, displays, interactive exhibits, historic documents and restorations awaits the visitor. Be sure to plan a few hours so that you can take your time strolling through the exhibits and read all of the displays. You're brought back to the mid 20th Century with items like the presidential limousine and a reconstruction of the actual office where Nixon worked at home. There's a complete display with original posters and buttons from the 1960 election. Television monitors replay some of Nixon's most important moments. There are actual pieces of history such as the big chunk of the Berlin Wall.
We found the Nixon Library an especially good way to introduce our 10-year-old daughter to our country's government and the important duties of the president. The displays are presented in such an understandable and entertaining way that we didn't see any hints that our daughter was bored – she seemed to be absorbing it almost like she was taking a stroll through Disneyland just a few miles up the freeway.
Especially touching is the small house where Nixon was born and raised – a very simple existence back in the days when this house was surrounded by orchards rather than the expansive library complex that now stands in place of those orchards. Observing Nixon's house and the historic photographs of Nixon and his family underscore how much simpler life was in the Southern California of the early 1900's.
Nixon and his wife Pat were buried just a few feet from the house and many visitors pause to pay their respect to a fascinating man. Whether you agreed with his politics, his life was filled with interesting twists and turns and, of course, everyone wonders how a person who had achieved so much could, in the end, abuse his office so badly. There are no answers at the Nixon Library, just context – and very fascinating context at that.
About 40 miles southwest of the Nixon Presidential Library is Nixon's famous Western White House, the Spanish hacienda that Nixon would often visit as president, and where he went to live out his years after the Watergate scandal. Today there are just everyday people living in this San Clemente home and it's not easy to find – although it is visible from the beach if you know where to look. Locals who were in San Clemente at the time love to tell stories about the parade of secret service agents that would use the freeway and some local streets to accompany the president to his house – if he didn't arrive by helicopter, that is.
On our trip to the Nixon Library we decided to tie it in with a visit to San Clemente, one of Southern California's most scenic cities. When you're driving Interstate 5 toward San Diego, the views suddenly open up near San Clemente and you can observe a 180-degree ocean panorama with the picturesque hills of San Clemente in the foreground. The city has a lot of Spanish architecture and carries that one step further with Spanish street names. The streets on the water side of the freeway are anything but straight – every street it seems twists and turns down the hill offering some of the homes spectacular views of the ocean.
The beaches in San Clemente are among the best in Southern California from the standpoint of wide open stretches of sand and beautiful ocean views. It almost seemed to us that no one had yet discovered the beaches we were walking on – not far from the Nixon White House – and we could only marvel at the local residents' good fortune to have such perfect stretches of sand available for their use every day of the week.
Our favorite spot in San Clemente is the pier area, a tiny village of sorts that might just as well be on the Mediterranean with its Spanish stucco inns and sidewalk cafes. A couple of excellent restaurants are located right on the pier itself.
We took the opportunity to stay the night because one of our favorite bed-and-breakfast inns is located right in the pier area. The Casa Tropicana is a small inn with only a few rooms, but each of the luxurious rooms looks out on the beach and pier as well as the sidewalk café and shops below. It's the kind of place where you can sit on your desk and just soak up the ocean air and views and, most often, considerable sunshine.
If you want to leave this idyllic place, it's just a short drive up the road to the main downtown area of San Clemente, where you'll find a wide assortment of shops and restaurants. It's a quiet, laid-back kind of place – as you might expect from a beach community – and once you've spent any time in San Clemente you'll have no problem figuring out why Richard Nixon made this the location of the Western White House.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: The Nixon Presidential Library is located in Yorba Linda, California, south and east of Los Angeles. The library is easily accessible using the area's freeway system and is just 40 miles from Nixon's home town later in life, San Clemente.
WHAT: The Nixon Library is an amazing collection of artifacts from the life of President Richard M. Nixon, best known for his resignation in the wake of the Watergate scandal in the early 1970's. The library uses many types of exhibits to show the major events in Nixon's life from birth to his burial on the library grounds. The library has many exhibits that change, constantly updating the treasure trove of memorabilia and historic documents.
WHEN: Year-round. Yorba Linda enjoys the same great weather as Los Angeles and is warm and temperate year-round with ample sunshine.
WHY: A trip to the Nixon Presidential Library is interesting both for history buffs and anyone interested in the enigma known as Richard Nixon. It's a rare opportunity to see so much of historical significance all in one place and is worth spending several hours to completely explore the exhibits.
Photos, from top: Nixon Library grounds are like a college campus; Nixon's grave is next to boyhood home; presidential seal greets visitors to Nixon Library; 1960 election figures prominently in library's memorabilia
Photos by CARY amd SAMDI ORDWAY