LA Sidetrip: Nixon Library and Museum

richard-nixonNixon’s the One!

Certainly there was a period of years when I couldn’t have imagined visiting the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, much less enjoying it, but times change. Located in the town of Yorba Linda, where the 37th President was born, it’s about an hour southeast of downtown Los Angeles. (The better-known “western White House” in San Clemente is near the ocean.)

The National Archives runs the site and has done a fine job creating exhibits and audiovisuals. They don’t gloss over the problematic aspects of Nixon’s presidency—you can even listen to some of the infamous White House tapes—as well as remind visitors of the good parts.

And there were accomplishments that Americans can still be proud of and value. Among those described on the library’s website, he started the Environmental Protection Agency and supported a range of environmental issues, he launched the “War on Cancer,” which, though far from over, has led to significant advances in cancer care and fundamental biomedical research, he oversaw programs and laws protecting the civil rights of women, school-children, and American Indians, and, on the international front, he opened the door to China, used diplomatic means to limit the Soviet-American arms race, and affirmed U.S. treaty obligations. Nowadays, Nixon looks better than one might have predicted 43 years ago when he left the White House in disgrace.


The library has an excellent timeline of events that led to Watergate and, ultimately, Nixon’s resignation. Some years later, I worked in the very suite of offices that the Democratic National Committee occupied in 1972—600 Virginia Avenue, third floor. One of the doors leading to the stairwell had a plaque on it commemorating the night that the tape was found on that door, which led to the discovery of the Watergate break-in, which led to the cover-up, which led to the Saturday night massacre, which led to the congressional hearings, which led to the Nixon family’s departure from the White House lawn in Marine One.

Pat Wanted an Acting Career

The museum surprises with its documenting of the quiet and steady contribution of Pat. As First Lady, she was active and participatory and carried a good will message from America around the world. In the Watergate era, when I was perhaps paying more attention, she seemed unruffled, on pause. Possibly this was a coping strategy or a bizarre fulfillment of her desire to be an actor.

On the Grounds

Nixon's boyhood home

Nixon’s boyhood home; photo: Vicki Weisfeld

Also at the museum complex you can tour the “boyhood home” and see the bedroom where Nixon was born, as well as the plot where he and Pat are buried. The Marine One helicopter, used by numerous presidents is on display and tour-able unless the weather is too hot! Nixon was a lawyer, a commissioned Navy officer during World War II, and served his country as U.S. Representative, U.S. Senator, Vice President during the Eisenhower years, and President.

As a private citizen again, he wrote his memoirs and several other books. Despite his flaws, the Library notes that every president who succeeded him consulted him on foreign affairs (Henry Kissinger’s eulogy).

Going? Books to Throw in Your Suitcase

Elvis & Nixon

Elvis & NixonIf you remember the Nixon presidency at all—the odd, stiff gestures, the way the man hunkered down like a turtle trying to duck back into its shell, his paranoia and cluelessness, and his straight-arrow staff (all criminals in the making)—you will appreciate how much this odd movie (trailer) nailed the early 1970s!

My expectations weren’t high, and perhaps that’s the key, because it surprises you at every turn, even though the premise is tissue-thin. It’s based, after all, on the fact that the photo of Nixon meeting Elvis in the White House on December 21, 1970,  is the most-requested photo in the National Archives. When you think of the treasures the Archives possesses, this is absurd on its face. A more incongruous encounter is hard to imagine, as Mark Olsen said in the Los Angeles Times, “one stiff in a businessman’s suit and the other relaxed in a velvet cape.”

What makes the film so strong are the performances. Kevin Spacey is Nixon in both body language and with his bitter, eye-popping rants. Michael Shannon is a less handsome yet ultimately powerfully sympathetic Presley. He visits the President to offer his help. He’s set on obtaining a badge as an At-Large Federal Agent so he can help combat the drugs and youth unrest he sees as destroying the country. In this goal he finds an ally in the President, or, as NPR reviewer Dave Edelstein said, “two lost souls connect.”Presley’s supreme confidence—arriving unannounced at the White House gate—makes an interesting counterpoint to Nixon’s lack of it.

The supporting cast—Colin (son of Tom) Hanks and Evan Peters as Nixon aides Egil Krogh and Dwight Chapin and Alex Pettyfer as Presley confidant Jerry Schilling—all play it so straight the two leads are free to let the absurdities of the situation have full rein:

Krogh (to Bob Haldeman): The King is here.
Haldeman: The President doesn’t have any appointments with royalty.
Krogh: No. THE King. Elvis.

No one knows what really went on in that session. Nixon hadn’t started taping his encounters yet, though staff were present for parts of it. The script by Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal, and Cary Elwes is a plausible and imaginative recreation.Their humor can be subtle as well as laugh-out-loud (as I did, lots) and some great sight gags, too, like when Presley and Schilling run into an Elvis impersonator in the Los Angeles Airport. But it never goes for caricature or the cheap shot.

“Nobody really wants to see a big takedown of Elvis Presley,” director Liza Johnson said in the LA Times article linked above. “And nobody needs to see a big takedown of Richard Nixon because that happened already.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 76%; audiences, 77%.