Thursday, May 26, 2011

My Visit to NixonLand, part 1

The Nixon library has been in the news of late, as control of the materials has reverted to the National Archives. With Nixon's people no longer able to doctor the history, a new Watergate exhibit has opened. Many of the Nixon people felt that the original Watergate exhibit should have been preserved along with the new one, and for once, I agree with them. Everyone in America should have the chance to see for themselves Nixon's last, desperate, feckless effort to spin his legacy. Getting thrown out of Nixon's library on opening day was one of the proudest moments of my life. I remember it like it was yesterday....

I licked the blood from my fingers as I strode towards the grand opening ceremonies for the Nixon library in Yorba Linda, California. I had just stubbed my toe something fierce on a piece of loose grating, running late as usual. Reaching down to assess the damage, I squeezed the injured digit, producing a copious flow of blood onto my hand, but also clotting the wound satisfactorily. “I don’t want to miss this for anything,” I told my travelling companion, John Joyner. “Perhaps the Nixon people will have some bandages for you,” he laughed.

Arriving on time was a matter of some importance, if not complete urgency. When we had arrived the previous dawn for the historic Meeting of the Presidents, Yorba Linda Boulevard was jammed with tens of thousands of starstruck Republicans. After mingling with this bunch for several hours in the stifling heat and smog, we decided to blow off the dedication ceremonies and listen to the ponderous speeches in a bar somewhere. This morning turned out to be another matter entirely. It was still dark when John and I showed up, but we could easily have grabbed a few more hours of shuteye. Sitting on the steps of the entryway was one solitary tourist named Milt, a goofball from God knows where, who as John put it, “gives new credence to the Lone Nut theory.”

Thus, we were unsure of what to expect, with the scheduled 8:30 opening only minutes away. What we found was a knot of about forty or fifty people, at least half of them reporters, the remainder actual Nixon fans. John and I, quite obviously, did not fall into either category. Aside from the blood-caked toe protruding from my beach sandals, I wore turquoise pants with a half-broken zipper, a purple short-sleeved shirt, and a baseball cap emblazoned “Kafka.” I was sunburned, unshaven, and pouring sweat. John, as I recall, was dressed in black trousers and a red “Jobs not Jails” T-shirt. Apart from the question of his shaggy black hair and beard, his Mediterranean/Carribbean ancestry made him one of the few persons of any color at all in attendance (excepting, of course the overwhelmingly Latino grounds crew).

“A decided paucity of raving conspiracy freaks,” noted John, correctly. We milled around nervously, waiting for the doors to open. Apart from a bit of orange juice, our only breakfast had been a once-popular derivative of ergot, a mold that grows on rye. It put the hoped-for emotional edge on the day’s events, but left us feeling even more wild-eyed and conspicuous than we appeared. Finally the formalities commenced, and the less than rabid crowd shuffled towards the door.

“This is a very exciting day for us,” droned a sweating dignitary. “Now the world will know where Yorba Linda , California is... for our friends in the media, we ask that you not interview the guests until they have left the library, so that you don’t interfere with the quality of their experience here.” He then introduced the Mayor, Gene Weisner, who chuckled lamely that he was expecting a much larger crowd, then proceeded to introduce the entire City Council, one by one. Finally the portals were opened for ten-year-old Andy Toole of Tucson, who had been selected as the first paying customer to enter Nixon’s ghastly monument to himself.

Once we had payed our $3.95 and edged our way in, there was a further delay while the Nixon people scurried to prepare the auditorium for the premiere of Nixon’s 27-minute biopic “Never Give Up.” Meanwhile, Milt, the predawn goofball, sidled up to us, asking if we wanted our “names in the paper.” He introduced us to Laura, a reporter for the Orange County Register, who wondered, quite logically, what we were doing there.

“I’ve been studying Nixon for seven or eight years,” I explained, “and I’ve written a book about him,” handing her a brochure describing my self-published art book, The Nixon Saga. “I drove down here from Santa Cruz. I wouldn’t have missed this for the world. I wanted to see how this treacherous man could draw this kind of respect.” By now thoroughly amused by us, Laura invited us to seek her out and share our impressions of the library with her, once we had sufficiently immersed ourselves in the experience.

As we settled into our seats, one of the Nixon people announced that one could proceed into the museum without viewing the film, but that once departed from the museum one would most emphatically not be allowed back in. Thus warned, John and I began snickering in amazement as the lights dimmed and the cheesy fanfare heralded the beginning of the film, Nixon’s moment of triumph from the 1968 Republican convention. As the narrative progressed through strategically selected highlights of Nixon’s career, the effects of our breakfast made his face pulsate with demonic energy. Interspersed with the stock footage were segments filmed just two months earlier of the old boy waxing philosophic. Slathered with pancake makeup, squinting into the lights, his hair by now completely gray, the eight-foot-high visage of the man we had driven 500 miles to dishonor now hovered before us. From our corner of the auditorium came bursts of laughter and occasional snorted comments, though as the Nixon functionary inched closer to us, I cautioned John not to get us thrown out . Not just yet anyway. We were definitely out to test the limits of our hosts’ patience, but not before drinking in the ambience of the place. When the house lights came up, the emcee, eyeing us nervously, announced to the crowd that they had changed their mind, and we could come and go as we pleased. With that, the doors to the library were thrown open.

As I gawked at the first display, the Hall of Time Magazine Covers, I was approached by San Francisco Chronicle reporter Leah Garchik. “What would a man in a Kafka cap,” she smiled, “be doing here?” “Oh, I just came to see the spectacle,” I replied, explaining to her about my book and the purpose of the trip. She asked to see one of my brochures, and we discussed the artwork, including the Picasso-style cubist portrait of Tricky on the cover. “That’s uh, Edvard Munch, isn’t it?” she asked, indicating a parody of Munch’s `The Scream’ with Nixon in the title role. “Right, and this is George Herriman’s `Krazy Kat’ - used to run in the Examiner,” I pointed out, indicating a feline Nixon being beaned by Ignatz Mouse’s ubiquitous brick. Garchik asked where the book was available, saying she would give me “a little plug” in her column (which she did, to my gratitude).

Thanking her profusely, Joyner and I proceeded to the next exhibit, a long curving room whitewashing Nixon’s campaigns for the House, the Senate and the Vice-Presidency. At one end, excerpts from the Checkers Speech (or the Fund Crisis Speech, as Nixon prefers) are available at the touch of a button. While John whimpered loudly in mock sympathy for Pat Nixon’s minkless wardrobe, I checked out the Alger Hiss exhibit.

Donning headphones, I stood before a glass case containing a pumpkin, an old Woodstock typewriter, and the microfilm evidence that miraculously surfaced when charges against Hiss were about to be dropped. The narrator breathlessly recounted the myth of the heroic Congressman’s battle against Convicted Perjurer Hiss. When the flimsy evidence against Hiss was pronounced “irrefutable,” I ripped off the headphones with a snort.

While I scrutinized the rooms devoted to the 1960 Presidential race and the so-called “Wilderness Years,” Joyner came racing up.

“Zep, you’ve got to see this. Brace yourself.” As he led me into the Hall of Great World Leaders, we burst into laughter at the distorted caricatures of Krushchev and Brezhnev. The other statues, according to the Orange County Register’s 16-page pullout section on the Library, “are arranged as if the late leaders are having casual conversations. Golda Meir of Israel seems ready to speak with Egypt’s Anwar Sadat,” though of course Mrs. Meir, under Nixon and Kissinger’s tutelage, completely ignored Sadat’s 1971 peace offer. The groupings of Adenauer and De Gaulle with Churchill, and Chou with Mao show more dignity than the brutish Soviets, though in a perplexing addition, Japan’s Yoshida Shigeru stares off into space, having a casual conversation with himself. Completing the room’s decor are 20-foot tall glass cases of “treasures” given to Nixon during his Presidency, including, tastelessly, a carved elephant tusk.

Our mood of general hilarity was further enhanced by the next pavilion, “Foreign Affairs: The Structure of Peace.” A tacky replica of a Chinese shrine is overshadowed by an even tackier cardboard Kremlin, which on closer inspection proves to be a fairly inept stucco representation of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow. Cackling with laughter, John and I searched in vain for discussions of Nixon’s foreign policy triumph in Chile, or his relationships with tinhorn dictators like Marcos and the Shah. Tucked into a corner, as promised, was a “typical 1960-style suburban home,” wherein Vietnam, “the first television war, is played out in an exhibit that includes a period TV set.”

As I examined the dubious claims in the text mounted on the walls, Joyner sat down before the set and began bitterly heckling Nixon’s “Silent Majority “ speech. This attracted the attention of yet another reporter, who began questioning John about his age at the time of the speech. He began recounting his Orange County childhood to her, whereupon they were interrupted by a grizzled Nixon docent in a green blazer. “We said there was to be no interviewing in here,” he growled. “That’s okay,” John inserted quickly, “I want to talk to her.” “Yeah,” I added, “she’s not detracting from our experience in the least.”

“No!” he snarled. “NO interviewing! we told you people already. Now you can talk to people when they leave, but until then you follow the guidelines!” With that he stalked away. “Sheesh!” grinned the reporter. “Yeah, it’s like their first instinct is to stifle dissent,” John sneered. “Well, I guess, there’s nothing to prevent us from having a friendly little conversation, not really asking or answering any questions you know...” He faced dramatically away from the reporter while continuing to talk to her. Chuckling, she resumed the interview for several more minutes until the man in lime green appeared once again.

“Ah, listen, we’ve changed our mind, and you can talk to anyone you want to. Would you be sure and tell the others?” The exasperated reporter rolled her eyes heavenward as John bellowed after the Nixon geek, “Another victory for freedom of expression!”

To be continued...

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