Understanding the late president and his context through a new exhibition of his personal effects at the Nixon Presidential Library
He volunteered for duty in a combat zone and badgered his superiors for assignment to the front. He dove for cover during enemy air raids, and glossed over the danger in his letters home. He ached for the love of his life. He inveigled like Milo Minderbinder. And he made a killing at cards.
"You asked how much of the $675 was from poker," Dick Nixon wrote his wife, Pat, in July 1944. "All of it! In fact I've won over a thousand to date. More about that later."
A cache of previously unseen correspondence from the young Navy officer, on duty in the South Pacific in 1943 and 1944, is a highlight of a new exhibit marking the 100th anniversary of his birth. It opens Friday at the Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California.
"The Seabees did it and we got the materials in various ways -- all more or less legal!" Nixon wrote Pat, after a round of successful scheming that left he and his team of air-traffic coordinators with screened tents, showers, a 12-seat latrine, and a mess hall. "It all took a lot of bargaining but now that it's done I feel pretty happy."
Nixon shared the fruits of his finagling with the transport pilots whose missions he helped orchestrate. They carried supplies to the front, and fetched the wounded back, and would stash an extra case or two of beer or Coca-Cola on their planes for the well-liked proprietor of "Nick's Snack Shop," who served them hamburger sandwiches, with cold juice or coffee, between flights. An extra case of beer, Nixon knew, went a long way with the Seabees.
When then-President Bill Clinton gave the eulogy at Nixon's funeral in 1994 he called for more civil consideration of America's most polarizing president. "May the day of judging President Nixon on anything less than his entire life and career come to a close," Clinton said. The library's new exhibit, an evocative collaboration by two old antagonists -- the federal National Archives and the private Nixon Foundation -- marks the 100th anniversary of Nixon's birth in the spirit of Clinton's challenge.
Long on context and biography, and short on the kind of partisan brawling at which Nixon excelled, the galleries hold an impressive array of artifacts, images, and newly released documents that fill some of the gaping holes in the museum's permanent exhibit, across the hall.
There's the bench Nixon warmed for the Whittier College football team, his pipe and eyeglasses, and the desk chair he used in the Oval Office. (The desk on display, sadly, is a reproduction. The curators could not wheedle the real thing from its current user, Vice President Biden.)
"To understand the Nixon presidency you have to understand the nation he inherited."
Nixon's dress blue Navy uniform, which he wore to an interview with Orange County's Republican grandees in 1945 because he owned no civilian business suits, is on display. They saw something in the young lieutenant commander, and backed him in a savagely successful campaign to unseat Democratic Rep. Jerry Voorhis, a New Deal favorite, in 1946. One of the podiums used by Nixon in his bruising debates with Voorhis is on display as well.
And there is another desk, a reminder of Nixon's modest background as the son of a small-town grocer in what is now a sprawl of freeways and shopping centers, but was then backwoods citrus farmland. After graduating from Duke Law School during the Depression, and failing to land a job at the top New York law firms, Nixon came home to practice law in Whittier. He and his father built the desk for his office, with a false front made from orange crates and a top fabricated from an old door. In its own way, it's as humanizing as his letters home to Pat.