I used to live in Nixon Country. The first house we owned was in Whittier, where the late president grew up. My husband grew up there, too, in the hills straddling Los Angeles and Orange counties. His Republican parents dragged him at age 9 to a Nixon rally at Whittier College; it was 1960, and they made him wear a little straw boater. The whole town, he recalls, turned out.
I think of that place and time whenever someone mentions Richard M. Nixon, who would have celebrated his 100th birthday this month. He was long gone from the White House by the late ’80s when we moved to the ranch house down the road from my in-laws’, but his ghost was everywhere, from the historical plaques around town to our kids’ classmates’ surnames.
And the ground was still thick with his defenders—the conservative men, the stay-at-home women, the grandmothers in the Nancy Reagan-red suits with the gold button earrings, the kids who would tell your kids up front that they couldn’t play at your house unless you believed in Jesus. You could tell the Nixon haters, too, with their yuppie cars and their NPR and their granular knowledge of all things Dylan. In fact, Nixon Country in those days reflected the divide in my husband’s family: those for whom Watergate would be unforgivable forever, and those who would never forgive the lack of forgiveness for their favorite son.
Shortly after we moved in, the Nixon Presidential Library & Museum went up at his birthplace in nearby Yorba Linda. Like many who live near landmarks, we never got around to visiting. But I was back in the area recently and curiosity seized me. Seven presidents, four wars, and countless “-gates” had come and gone since Nixon. I wondered if, after all this time, I would discover some middle ground in those stately rooms and rosy gardens. But the place, privately run by Nixon backers for some 15 years before Congress brought it into the presidential library system, was as bifurcated as its namesake.
One set of exhibits was all baby pictures and campaign buttons; another, newer set echoed with Nixon’s taped voice, plotting in the White House like a paranoid creep. Here, he was a hardworking lawyer, husband, diplomat, environmentalist, and healthcare reformer; there, he was a ravaged close-up, mourning “so many bad judgments.”
I left confounded. Driving around, I tried to imagine the man who was “not a crook” as a venerable centenarian. On talk radio, the fightin’ words were Nixon redux—same “patriots” vs. “commies,” same Jesus vs. Dylan. But the farther I drove, the less clearly I saw him. Ranch houses and strip malls had displaced the lemon groves of his childhood. Campaign signs touted candidates named Chen and Hernandez. Outside his old Whittier law office, passersby supported Barack Obama; in Fullerton, where Nixon started high school, freshmen with history books hardly knew him. In Yorba Linda, a bumper sticker on a pickup urged, “Save the Seals—Club a Liberal,” seemingly unaware that the town’s most famous conservative had signed the Endangered Species Act.
I wondered what Nixon would make of this landscape. Only 41 percent of Orange County is Republican now. Maybe he’d be fine—he was a native Californian, after all, and Californians know, more than most, that landscapes change, that forgetfulness sometimes is the price of forgiveness, that, as the last election showed, fightin’ words don’t always mean the fight still matters. We used to live in Nixon Country, a country that isn’t Nixon’s anymore.
Illustration by Brett Affrunti
This article originally appeared in the January 2013 issue.