In January of 2002, not long after I retired, I drove down from Portland to San Diego to deliver and install an iMac for my wife's nephew. I drove down pretty quickly, despite snow in the Siskiyou Pass, but on the way home I planned to stop and see some wackiness in the Southern California area. Stops were to include the Lawrence Welk Resort and Golf Course, the giant dinosaurs featured in Pee Wee's Big Adventure (a revisionist wonderland all it's own, as the gift shop sells t-shirts that proclaim that humans lived alongside dinosaurs a few thousand years ago, and sorry if you believe in that on at least a couple of levels), the Queen Mary in Long Beach, and the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo, where you can sleep in a room made of rock.
The high point, however (as I never did make it out to ExoticWorld, feel free to look it up yourself) was a morning at the Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda near LA. I was just old enough to have been put out by the preemption of network television in prime time (this was pre-cable) but not nearly old enough to understand what a big deal this was at the time. Nine years old, in other words. When I was in college, I took on the challenge of making a speech when I was a freshman to give a defense of Nixon, although I had no love for the man or his legacy and by that time I was much less enamored of conservative politics, largely because of Reagan.
In other words, there was really no reason other than a love of history and the recognition that the history we read is someone's point of view. And I figured that if anyone was going to try to whitewash the Watergate scandal, the scandal that was so big that we now append the syllable "-gate" to everything else that comes along, it would be the Nixon Library.
The museum itself was a hoot, and actually pretty nice as a museum. There were very few people there, as it was a weekday morning, so I more or less had the run of the place with the exception of a few roaming tours of schoolkids. Strangely, the few (bored) attendants at the exhibits seemed to be much more impressed with the technical aspects of a given display than the history behind it. For example, there was an exhibit that had bronze statues of every world leader that Nixon had met with, including Brezhnev and whoever was running China at the time. The message that the staff wanted me to take away? That the statues weighed practically nothing because they were just shells. Really.
Of course, the high point of the tour for me was the Watergate exhibit. I wondered how the curators were going to handle this particular episode, seeing as it was perhaps the most important political scandal until Iran-Contra. The exhibit was a long dark hallway with a set of photographs and text illuminated from behind on one wall. I actually thought that it was a very appropriate metaphor even if the message it gave was that Nixon hadn't really done anything wrong or different than other presidents and that the "smoking gun" that Congress brought out during the impeachment hearings that forced Nixon to resign was circumstantial at best. I actually think that there's a pretty good chance that Nixon was not accorded due process, but I do think that he was behind violations of election law among other things. I think that pretty much every president that gets elected has dirty, dirty hands, and if not they get dirty pretty quickly. Nixon was just the first president who was exposed for what he was. Of course, in the post 2000 election world, we all can see what a country that holds itself up as a shining beacon of democracy and clean elections is willing to do, but back in 1973 it was pretty shocking.
Today I see that this exhibit is getting a long-deserved face-lift. Or face-drop, depending upon how you look at it. The missing 18 minutes is acknowledged to almost certainly have been erased deliberately, Nixon is given a more prominent role in decisions to interfere with elections through break-ins and digging up dirt on Democrats. Maybe it's because these sort of tactics seem so commonplace now that even the last bastion of Nixon's reputation and legacy is willing to say, "Yeah, he was a bastard. But he was tough on the commies when it counted!" Because believe me, the rest of the museum is all about him being tough on the commies.
The most chilling part of my visit to the library, however, came not from the exhibits but from a tour guide. A group of 12-14 year olds were on a tour right behind me while I was in the Watergate exhibit, just about to enter the hall. The guide stopped them, and I will never forget what she said to them:
"Alright, everyone. This next exhibit is about something called 'Watergate'. It happened a long time ago and it was very complicated and you'll be writing a paper on it once you get to high school, so for now we're going to just move through it quickly and end the tour."
That's close enough to verbatim. I can hear her voice to this day, and it still chills me to the bone. Apparently those kids learned the lessons of willful ignorance and the value of only taking in information that reinforces your narrative in support of a specific agenda. I don't care who you vote for, that kind of attitude is advancing the collapse of the American state on a daily basis.
Even in what was ostensibly the most whitewashed account of Nixon's presidency, no one wanted to acknowledge how their hero had fallen, but they had to have something on the wall seeing as he was the only president to resign in disgrace. I wonder if they will still scoot the kids through that hallway after the turd isn't quite so shiny. The moment when Americans, weary of seeing what their tax dollars were doing in Viet Nam, learned that their leaders were in it for themselves.
I'll tell you one thing - I hope the tour guides do more than hustle the kids down the hall now. Maybe it will teach them to expect more from their leaders. Because we need more from them, and we need it right freakin' now.