Over part of the holidays I happened to be in Southern California, and on a Sunday afternoon without much to do I decided to pay a visit to the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda. I have never been to a presidential library before and was very curious to see what one was like. As is turned out where I was staying was almost equidistant between the Nixon and Reagan libraries, but I decided on going to Nixon’s largely on a whim.

Presidential libraries are (forgive the expression) very tricky things. They are living representations of history, but as they’re all for very recent presidents, it’s often hard to disentangle history from contemporary politics. They are also, by definition, not objective history. The purpose of a presidential library is to showcase the particular President involved and to present his accomplishments in the best possible light. This mission might–but does not necessarily have to–conflict with the duty to present history honestly. In the case of Nixon, an extremely controversial president who many historians have judged in a negative light, I was very curious to see how his presidential library resolved this tension.

I was very surprised when I got to the Nixon and found it completely mobbed, largely by families with small children. Mind you, I’m quite happy that so many parents are exposing their kids to history at an early age, but I wonder what a 6-year-old girl is going to make of Watergate. No matter. As it was Christmastime, the lobby was decorated with a number of Christmas trees, including a few totally unrelated to Nixon. One of them was a Star Wars-themed tree which I just have to share, it was so awesome!

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Sadly, the Star Wars themed Christmas tree, while full of cool ornaments, contained no sparkling icicle-draped renditions of Mark Hamill’s face.

The main galleries of the Nixon Library were devoted to exhibit halls that take you through the President’s life in roughly chronological order. The early years were covered mostly by display cases telling the life stories of Nixon and his wife Pat, and then the exhibit hall began with Nixon’s first run for Congress in 1946. Among the artifacts displayed were the pages of the actual letter Nixon wrote to a Republican recruiter, accepting the offer to run against Democratic incumbent Jerry Voorhis. This would go on to be Nixon’s first political victory.

There was surprisingly little coverage of Nixon’s 1950 Senate run, which was pivotal both in his life and American history. That year Nixon, then a two-term Congressman, challenged Helen Gahagan Douglas, scion of the New Deal and activist wife of Hollywood actor Melvyn Douglas, in the California Senate race. It was in this campaign where Nixon’s reputation as a vicious and sometimes dirty politician really got started. He hinted (without actually saying) that Douglas had Communist sympathies, a totally unjustified charge. The museum exhibited one of the famous “pink sheets”–handbills containing a vicious attack on Douglas, printed on suggestively pink paper–but aside from that and Nixon’s car, there wasn’t much coverage of this event. The early years exhibits devoted more attention to the “Checkers” speech of 1952 and Nixon’s Presidential debate against John F. Kennedy, offering complete unedited video of both on period-appropriate retro TV sets, the latter set up in an alcove decorated to look like a typical American living room circa 1960.

As for Nixon’s presidency, the one fact the Nixon Library really, really, really wants to impress upon its visitors is this: Nixon went to China. I will repeat that in bold underline just in case you didn’t get it: Nixon went to China! The visitor is reminded of this accomplishment constantly in the next several rooms, by such subtle cues as life-sized steel statues of Mao Tse-Tung and Chou En-Lai, the crate in which the giant pandas were shipped to the U.S., and numerous glass cases of gifts that the Chinese showered upon President and Mrs. Nixon during their visit there in February 1972. The Chinese architecture and decor of these rooms also underscore the point.

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Richard Nixon is buried at his Presidential library, just as Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford are at theirs.

The coverage of the China trip was lavish, but at least fair. Less so, I think, was the relatively small gallery dedicated to the Vietnam War. The exhibits spent most of their real estate explaining how we got into the war and how everybody except Richard Nixon  (Eisenhower, JFK, LBJ, the French, etc.) was responsible for it. The exhibits also repeat the assertion more than once that Nixon did not claim to have a “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War in 1968. While I haven’t researched that issue exhaustively, it is far from clear whether Nixon actually made that promise, allowed or acquiesced in it being made on his behalf, or knew about it but didn’t disavow it. Clearly he benefited from it. The Vietnam gallery also glossed over demonstrations and opposition to the war. The final part of the gallery was dedicated to the P.O.W./M.I.A. issue, including a video screen depicting the return in early 1973 of the final American P.O.W.s–including future Republican Presidential nominee John McCain.

As for Watergate, a very confusing subject, I think the Library did about as well as it could do. The Watergate gallery is full of words and mug shots, and anyone coming to the subject cold would have to spend a long time reading all the walls and interacting with the various video exhibits to really understand it. Nevertheless I thought the treatment of Watergate was even-handed. It didn’t attempt to exonerate Nixon or apologize for his crimes. I was a little disappointed that none of the exhibits allowed me to hear the tape of the June 23, 1972 conversation in the White House between Nixon and Bob Haldeman–the “smoking gun” tape whose release precipitated Nixon’s resignation–in its entirety. You get to hear a little of it, but not that much.

For my money the most interesting part of the Library was the house where Nixon was born. The original house is still there, not a reproduction, on its original site–the whole Library site was developed around it. It’s also stocked with a number of household items actually owned by the Nixons, again, not reproductions or copies, but the real deal (like the piano where young Richard learned music). The bedroom, and even the bed, where Hannah Nixon gave birth to the future 37th President in January 1913 are still there. During his life Nixon idolized his mother and her presence still permeates the house. She died in 1967, barely a year before her son was elected President.

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I was highly impressed by this faithful reconstruction of Nixon’s last office, which was left exactly as it was on the night he suffered his final illness in the spring of 1994.

The most somber and reflective part of the Library is, not surprisingly, the little sunny garden where Richard and Pat Nixon are buried side by side. I was impressed that this man, who was once the most powerful person on Earth, is buried literally less than 50 feet from the spot where he was born. Pat, a truly great First Lady, dedicated her life to her husband, and she’s there too; she preceded him in death by a little less than a year. Inside the Library one of the most interesting exhibits was an exact reproduction of Nixon’s office in Park Ridge, New Jersey, exactly as he left it on the evening of his fatal stroke, April 18, 1994. The books he was reading at the time are still on the desk, and his reading glasses lying on the pad where he wrote extensive notes. These touches really humanized Nixon for me.

Overall, I really enjoyed the Nixon Presidential Library. It wasn’t perfect, but I thought its presentation of the controversial 37th President was generally fair and accurate, with a few lapses and fudges here and there. I hope to visit more Presidential libraries in the future, but I’m sure I will be comparing them all to the Nixon.